We’ve all done it. Go to a £5 or £10 show & end up blowing 40 quid on merch. Because we want something to savour the moment. Something to represent our favourite bands outside of the euphoria of that show. Something to communicate to others who we are, what we are about, what values we hold & what we stand for.
In fact, in a world where the media industry is increasingly controlled by corporations, & money is going into the hands of digital deviants like Spotify (note Dream Nails realising that to earn minimum wage they would need 16,420 streams a day on the site!) – buying merch becomes a matter of pride. A way to support the bands we love, & to ensure that money goes back into the hands of the artist. Buying merch at a show becomes a form of solidarity & protest.
But what if that protest was built off the backs of others? If by supporting the bands we see locally, we were contributing to the emotional & physical pain of some of the most vulnerable people in society? What if that 40 pounds equated to less than 1 dollar a day for the lowest paid workers who made the t-shirt? What if our punk values were costing something of way more value? – What if they were costing human lives?
In 2013 the world came to a standstill as it watched devastation unfold in a factory in Bangladesh. The Rana Plaza was a factory that had previously been found faulty in terms of building safety & yet nothing had been done to change this. In fact, workers on the day had pleaded with their management to abstain from work because they feared for their safety. But instead, they were told to go back inside to complete their daily targets – they had orders to fill.
On the 24th of April the building collapsed, killing 1138 people & injuring 2500. The factory owners have since been tried for murder.
But this wasn’t the first factory collapse in the area. In fact, many of the conditions seen at the Rana Plaza were somewhat business as usual in most sourcing countries. Out of the death & devastation sprang up the Bangladesh Accord – where brands came together to try to solve the issue. The Accord has since been criticised for failure to make a difference, but at the same time in the grassroots activist community – something else was being born.
Punk Ethics grew out of the campaigning organisation No Sweat, who seek to act in solidarity with workers, to support co-ops where they are fairly paid & to advocate for trade unionism in other countries. Both organisations aim to change the face of capitalism by working directly with workers on the ground. In the words of Ren Aldridge in communication with Punk Ethics – ‘we’re all upholding capitalism any way. The punk scene works as its own little mini capitalist system. But then further supporting exploitation within that system is pretty bleak’. No Sweat has always had traditional ties with the UK punk scene, but Punk Ethics was the start of the official antidote to that gap in our values.
Punk Ethics is a collective aimed at taking those who ‘sing for the rejected, fight for the dispossessed & defend the oppressed’ to turn their ethos into action. They believe that ‘t-shirts have become an important part of the punk scene; a mark of identity in the world, a show of support for the bands we love, and a personal momentum of every show we attend along the way [ . . . ] when you buy or sell a t-shirt made in a sweatshop, by someone paid pennies for their work in hellish conditions, you spit in the face of punk [ . . . ] you side with the system & stick two fingers up to the scene’.
But all that was about to change. Citing the need for solidarity not charity & paving the way for a real difference, Punk Ethics teamed up with No Sweat to align musicians with workers co-ops in Bangladesh – meaning that punk shirts no longer needed to be catered for by catastrophe. Punk Ethics ‘work to make punk as an art form into a social movement’, they bring the values we all care about to life, & as they put it ‘this is not an advert, this is a manifesto!’
‘the argument is that these are the best jobs people in developing countries can get so we shouldn’t regulate them – now, I think that’s clearly bollocks’Sara, Miserable Wretch
While No Sweat was more akin to the culture jamming activist nature of the 90s – with rip off corporate t-shirts & ironic slogans, where the personal was the only sphere for the political – Punk Ethics marks a change in the nature of activism – one with a global voice, a global workforce & you are damn right – it’s own global hashtag #punksagainstsweatshops
Internet @ctivism has a way of connecting those fighting for justice in ways never seen before. And with the help of Punk Ethics you no longer have to push through government & corporations to act in solidarity. You can do it through your music, you can do it through your phone, you can wear it on your skin.
The collective have worked with bands like Propagandhi, Crass, Oi Polloi & Petrol Girls to bring you merch that you can feel good about splurging on at shows. And today at 6PM they are releasing a film citing the motives behind the #punksagainstsweatshops campaign.
Whether it’s Sara from Miserable Wretch & full time economist stating ‘the argument is that these are the best jobs people in developing countries can get so we shouldn’t regulate them – now, I think that’s clearly bollocks’ or Ren of Petrol Girls stating that ‘the majority of sweatshop workers are women so you can’t really be in a feminist band & then support the exploitation of women through the use of sweatshops’ – you can see how the personal stances of the bands begin to blur with the empowerment they find within the campaign.
‘you can’t really be in a feminist band & then support the exploitation of women ‘Ren Aldridge, Petrol Girls
Those involved in the film also debunk common place myths with statements like – ‘you can’t look at everything in terms of financial expense. What’s the expense in terms of sweatshop workers dying in a factory? [ . . . ] I’d rather pay less than the price of a half pint in London & know that my t- shirt is actually going to help some people’ Deek, from Oi Polloi & the heart of the punk scene Alex from Wonk Unit stating ‘Don’t be one of those people that’s like ‘yeah well, their earning, without the sweatshops they’d be begging in the streets’ – it doesn’t matter, the fact is you’re exploiting these people – so don’t exploit people’ – or as he puts it more concisely – ‘don’t be a dick’.
The film brings us a new narrative around what it means to be involved in punk, about solidarity amongst the global working class & the ability & ethos to make a difference. The campaign finally gives punk bands the ability to make real change on the ground. To prevent ourselves from becoming global capitalists & to realise the change we wish to see in our economic climate. Or as Steve Ignorant from Crass more aptly puts it – ‘do we owe sweatshop workers a living – of course we fucking do!’.
The full film can be found at : https://www.punkethics.com/
Musicians can sign up to the Punk Ethics pledge by heading to : https://www.punkethics.com/manifesto/
And t-shirts can be bought from No Sweat here : https://www.nosweat.org.uk/about.html
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