The Currency of Compassion
In one day, how many people do we pay to work for us?
Let’s think - there are those helping clean and cook in our homes, the employees and staff that work in our companies, and beyond that those who serve us in restaurants, supermarkets, schools, shops, and taxis. If we broaden our perspective to include those we pay indirectly, then there are thousands of people working for us in every supply chain that creates the daily products and services that we use: from farmers, warehouse labourers, truck drivers, telecom engineers and more. So in other words, we are connected through labour relationships with hundreds of thousands of people daily!
Given that we are connected to so many people on a daily basis, this represents a tremendous opportunity to help create a better world. Bhaishree often reminds us that in every encounter we must take great care to remember our values, remaining loyal to our ethical compass. We always have a choice to practice friendship and make people’s eyes sparkle. And when we do this, we too benefit - it feels wonderful to be kind and spread happiness.
But like all virtuous goals, the endeavour to consistently have a positive impact on others is far easier said than done. So to help with this, we have put together a list of simple, practical ideas that can aid us in staying true to our goal. May we each be a channel of blessings for others, a shining light in this world!
Let’s be honest, it is a rare person that can sustain kindness towards everyone, at all times. When we are busy, other people can start to become invisible. Sometimes we may even try to avoid being “too nice”, for fear of being taken advantage of. At other times, tempted by increased profits, we may insist on our staff working longer days, or reduce their salary or payments. And when things go wrong, we may falsely accuse others and get angry. Such aggressions can seem minor, but they can have a substantial impact, especially on the more vulnerable workers that have limited negotiating power.
On a global scale, the cold and uncaring attitude towards workers perpetuates throughout the supply chain, creating harsh conditions in which people struggle to survive. The news about exploitation from around the world are shocking reminders of the true cost of our consumer culture that values cheap products more than the wellbeing of workers:
- Farmers - in India, every year thousands of farmers growing ingredients we all use, suffer from depression and commit suicide. This is due to being trapped in financial debts that they can't pay off no matter how hard they work.
- Tea workers - in India, those growing our tea are paid low wages (eg. 115 rupees/day), live in broken houses with unsanitary conditions, and are usually required to spray chemicals without protection. Many of these workers are children.
- Garment workers - in Bangladesh, factory workers do long shifts for low wages, risking their health and safety. Four years ago 1,130 people died when a run-down factory collapsed. They were making clothes for Primark, Benetton, Walmart and other popular brands.
- Electronic factory workers - in China, the factories that assemble our iPhones have been criticised repeatedly for forcing staff illegally to work overtime, without days off. Workers frequently fall asleep or collapse in the factory due to exhaustion.
Being a fair employer
Have you ever had a boss or a client that you felt was fair, trustworthy and caring? Someone who was on your side, who has got your back. With such a boss we don’t have to worry about being cheated, suddenly fired for no reason, or taken advantage of in any way. When we are blessed enough to work with kind and reliable people it makes a world of difference to our peace of mind, our health, and our balance in life.
So when it is our turn, we must remember it is a big responsibility to employ someone, especially when dealing with poor and disadvantaged members of society, such as our drivers, cleaners, and housemaids. Such people have limited education, financial security, or negotiating power - and often have no choice in the terms and conditions of their work. It is our obligation and privilege to take care of such people, and not to take advantage of them.
Borrowing from the Ethical Trading Initiative here are some simple ideas, that can easily be adopted by all of us.
1. Employment is freely chosen.
Forcing someone to work is a form of slavery. Taking passports or identity documents or "deposits" is a way of forcing someone to work. Workers should be free to leave their employment with reasonable notice.
2. Working conditions are safe and hygienic.
This means that workers should have health and safety training, and any necessary equipment, such as, gloves or safety hats should be provided. Workers should also have access to clean toilets and showers. If accommodation is provided, it should be clean, safe and of adequate size.
Pause for thought:
Have you ever thought about the lives of staff at a wedding or other big social or corporate events? Many workers in such situations do not have clean toilets and showers, a safe place to sleep, and are strictly not allowed to eat or drink until the event is over. This can lead to staff fainting from dehydration or hunger. When we as customers sign a contract with a catering company, do we ask about the working conditions of their staff? If we ourselves as customers don’t care about this aspect of the package, then how can we expect the owner of the catering company to care about it?
3. Child Labour is not used.
The UN rules on child labour say no child under 15 should work full time. It can be difficult to insist on this, when the children seem to have no other way of feeding themselves, or when their own parents are encouraging the children to work. Such work can be dangerous, stunting their growth. In addition if a child is working full-time she can’t be at school, and without an education they will end up in low-paid work as adults. As employers how can we encourage and support children to go to school?
Pause for thought:
It is estimated that over 6 million children today are in forced labour. Many of them working in the textile industry. Major fashion brands have over 200 suppliers, and when there are tight deadlines or unanticipated orders the suppliers will sub-contract work out. As a result, child labour is often hidden behind the scenes. Buyers who care about the wellbeing of workers must take out the time to visit manufacturing units and look out for warning signs.
4. Living wage is paid.
A living wage is one that can support a full-time employee to afford a reasonable standard of living. Often when employing someone we look primarily at the "going rate" and then try to get the best deal possible, rather than thinking about what is the level of pay required for that person to live comfortably.
To pay more to those at the bottom we may need to pay slightly less to those at the top (profits to shareholders, salaries for senior managers). In the UK the first company to go beyond legal requirements of minimum wage, and guarantee all staff a living wage, was cosmetics retailer Lush in 2011. This is costing the company £300,000 annually, but the CEO said “it is about fairness…and it makes business sense to pay a living wage because staff can deliver better service if they’re not also worrying about the rent.”
Pause for thought:
In an unexpected act of generosity, Keanu Reeves gave away £50 million of his earnings from the Matrix sequels to the costume and special effects teams whose vital work he felt was not being valued enough, while his earning was already more than enough.
5. Pay workers on time.
Many of us often delay paying someone for their work, possibly because we are too busy to arrange it, or because it favours our own cash flow situation. Perhaps it doesn't feel like a big deal if it is just by a day or two. However for those who don’t earn much, delayed payment can be a huge burden. Even in Islam, the Prophet has said it is important to: “Pay the labourer before the sweat dries”.
Pause for thought
In today’s construction industries, even in wealthy countries like the UAE and Qatar, there are often reports that migrant workers are brought in under false pretense promising higher salaries than they are really going to be paid. Then when they arrive their passports are taken away by employment agencies. They have no option but to work the long 14-18 hour days in the blistering heat, and if they fall ill and take a day off their salary is cut. It can take them 2 years just to pay off the debt for the journey to reach the country, while families back home wait for money to be sent over. Despite all this hardship, salaries can also be delayed by months. Just recently BK Gulf which is 49% owned by a British company Balfour Betty was under investigation for not paying their staff (mostly from Nepal) for more than three months. Meanwhile profitable skyscrapers, hotels and shopping malls are being built.
The labour camps these men are housed in are far from the main cities, but mumukshus in Dubai have regularly been visiting the camps, offering them food and clothes, to remind them that some people do care about them, and provide some relief. Often 20 men are sharing one room here. As Bhaishree once said, “nobody can help everyone, but everyone can help someone.”
6. Working hours are reasonable.
Everyone needs to take breaks and balance their work with other aspects of life. It is unfair to expect staff to be available for us all the time. As a rule of thumb, people cannot be expected to work for more than 60 hours within 7 days. Where overtime shifts are needed to meet certain deadlines or targets, this should be optional and health and safety precautions should be taken. Sadly in many companies employees are forced or pressured into overtime work even if they cannot physically cope with it.
7. No discrimination in hiring or compensation.
Consciously or subconsciously, employment decisions are often based on appearance, religion, gender, age or marital status. Even in the UK full-time female workers are paid 15.7% less than their male equivalents with the same qualifications and experience, and the difference between the genders is even worse for part-time workers.
Pause for thought:
Have you seen the Bollywood film Chalk n Duster? The film explains how biased society is against older, senior staff, particularly felt by organisations under pressure to present a modern image to customers.
8. Spread a culture of respect and value
Perhaps most importantly of all, is to cultivate a culture of respect within the company. Some of you will know that our very own Vikrambhai, in addition to everything he does with the Raj Saubhag ashram, also used to manage several retail shops in Mumbai, including one that sold watches. In his shop, he cultivated a ritual for his staff to take turns sharing inspiring quotes from any religion or philosophy, and uplifting their spirits before serving customers. He even told his staff that their focus need not be on selling the most expensive watches, but on finding out what the customer genuinely needs and how best to serve them. You can imagine what this type of leadership did for the morale of staff, and the delight of the shop’s customers.
Pause for thought:
How often do we stop to appreciate the support we have from others in our lives? Watch this heartwarming advert, that reminds us to feel grateful for the help we receive from our staff, and to remember how human we all are.
Being an Ethical Consumer
It is not just through direct employment relationships that we can make a positive difference. Our modern lives are vastly interconnected. By the time we finish breakfast in the morning - our lives have been touched by the work of countless farmers, money lenders, warehouse workers, truck drivers, shop keepers, and others that have made it possible for us to simply enjoy our meal!
So next time we buy a new item let’s take a moment to consider the entire supply chain. Where do things come from? Who made them? What kind of conditions would these people have worked in? Would they be able to earn enough? And ultimately, is this the kind of supply chain I am willing to support through my purchase?
1. Support companies making an effort.
Increasingly companies realise that customers care where things come from. Hence many are making an effort to inspect and improve conditions in their supply chain. Over the years certifications and marks have also been developed to communicate and differentiate products, for example “Fair-trade”, “Organic”, “Social enterprise”, and others. Some companies ensure that workers are paid properly and on-time, and that some funds go towards social projects such as healthcare centres and schools for the workers’ communities. Certain commodity products such as cotton, bananas, cocoa, and coffee now have well established fair trade supply chains. Other products are more complex, but you can take a look at any company’s ethical trading claims on their website (or lack of them) to get a basic idea of their efforts.
Reading all this it becomes clear that we should all be doing what we can - small changes like switching over to Fair trade tea and coffee can make a big difference.
Thankfully to help out the aspiring ethical consumer, there are many groups that publish their research and recommendations. Some examples:
UK ethical shopping: http://www.ethicalconsumer.org/
CSR role models in India: http://worldcsrday.com/ethical/ethical.html
Guides for buying home, fashion, travel products: http://www.thegoodtrade.com/
Useful list for those living in the US: http://theartofsimple.net/shopping-2-2/
The Fair Wear Foundation has a list of brands that do not allow for the use of child labour. https://www.fairwear.org/brands/
2. Boycotting companies exploiting their workers.
Every so often certain companies are criticised publicly for terrible worker conditions. This has happened in almost every industry, but most frequently the news is about chocolate, coffee, tea, textiles and increasingly electronics suppliers. Despite how shocked we may be when we first hear about it, most of us usually forget within a short while and start buying from these companies again. Instead perhaps we should boycott such brands, and perhaps even to write to them (email, or on twitter) to explain why we’ve stopped being a loyal customer. We may not aspire to be an activist, but can we really sleep peacefully at night knowing that we are actively funding an abusive supply chain?
If you are surprised to learn that this is happening in today’s world, despite the CSR movement towards ethical business, and despite tightening government regulations, learn more about modern day slavery issues that are consistently reported in the news.
Pause for thought
A violence that we all contribute to is the “conflict minerals” used in electronics. Tin, tantalum, tungsten or gold used in electronics often come from illegal mines in the Democratic Republic of Congo. This picture of young boys at work at a mine in the Congo, a nation that has been at war since 1997, shows how guerrilla groups are using child labour to mine minerals and earn money for weapons. Conflict areas such as this is where most minerals needed by the electronics industry come from, including mobile phones and tablets.
3. Buy less, choose well, make it last
Products that come from a more ethical supply chain are usually more expensive. So how can we afford it? The easiest solution, in the words of iconic fashion designer Vivienne Westwood, is “Buy less, choose wisely, and make it last”. Today most of us buy dozens of new clothes every year - in the USA, the average is 64 new garments annually! Instead let us take a moment and think before falling prey to our instinctive desire to buy something new and shiny. This way we can save up enough money to buy something more ethical and of higher quality, perhaps longer lasting. Or perhaps in the process of waiting, we will realise that we don’t need that latest new version after all.
Pause for thought:
When we get the urge to buy another cheap product, remember that it is probably made by a worker in a run-down building like this for employers who don’t care about their health or safety. In this image from April 2013, rescue workers search for victims after a building collapsed at Rana Plaza in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Despite the warning of large visible cracks having been reported, the management insisted that workers continue production on the day when it collapsed. More than 1,100 workers died and over 2,000 were hurt. The fashion brands sourcing from these factories were ones that many of us buy, including Benetton, Walmart, Mango and Primark.
Let’s remember that the problem is not a shortage of money - after all the owners of big fashion brands are among the wealthiest in the world. For example the owner of Zara is the fourth richest person globally, even overtaking Bill Gates, with a personal fortune of around $80billion. And still garment workers barely earn enough to live on, and buildings are run-down and unsafe.
4. Support local suppliers.
Buying local, or supporting local communities directly takes out the middlemen. Of course everyone needs to make a living, including the middlemen, but when considering all the members of the supply chain; it is often the farmers or labourers that are the poorest and most disadvantaged. Therefore,why not take the opportunity to pay them more for the goods when possible. There may be local farmer’s markets where you live, and local tailors who can make you clothes.
5. Avoiding polluting industries.
If we don’t want to be part of the demand that’s resulting in workers and the environment they live in being exposed to chemical poisoning, we must choose natural products. For example organic products use less chemicals in the process. Textile manufacturing facilities in China discharge hazardous chemicals into the water, while creating products for international brands such as the sportswear giants Nike and Adidas.
Pause for thought:
In this picture 19 year old Wei works in a factory in Yiwu, China, coating polystyrene snowflakes with red powder in time for Christmas. He gets through at least 10 face masks a day, trying to avoid breathing in the toxic red dust. He is concerned about his own health, but desperately trying to make enough money to get married.
Let us be sensitive to the needs of others, and not be blinded by indifference or personal greed. Let us think carefully about our deep impact on those that work for us, seen and unseen, all around the world. As spiritual seekers, our hearts must become tender enough to empathise, to put ourselves in the shoes of another person and understand their suffering. When we play the societal role of an employer, shareholder and customer we possess the simple but powerful capacity to care, starting with those closest to us in our homes and offices, and spreading through all the supply chains that provide us with goods and services. As the saying goes “every time you spend money, you are casting a vote for the kind of world you want.”
India’s shocking farmer suicide epidemic
Read this and switch to buying fair trade tea:
Dark side of dubai
Labour camps in Dubai
Construction workers in Qatar
Apple factories in China forcing workers to work overtime:
India tea plantations
Food waste at Indian weddings
Zara owner’s personal fortune
Chinese factories during christmas time
Child labour in textile industry
True cost of cheap clothes - underaged and overworked girls
- Ethics of supply chains
Labourers - Ghaith Abdul-Ahad/Guardian
Chinese worker in Christmas time - Imaginechina/Rex
- Congo mine - Per-Anders Pettersson/Getty Images