Following through a post from Mulier Fortis yesterday evening, I ended up on Fr Ray Blake's blog which I hadn't visited for several days, and found an interesting post about a firm in India which makes vestments.
Actually, the post itself was only mildly interesting, as I already knew the firm : what was interesting was the comments about it, with most commenters seeming to be more interested than anything else in whether the employees were properly paid, and working in 'safe' conditions, and the need to check this before buying.
Now I'm not suggesting that it's acceptable for anyone, least of all the Church, to benefit from sweated labour, child labour, or deliberate recklessness about the lives and welfare of workers. It's not, and it never was - Revd Percy Dearmer, in the first edition of 'The Parson's Handbook' (a manual for ritualistically-inclined Anglicans published in 1899) inveighed against the purchase of vestments and other furnishings for Churches made by sweated labour; and indeed the Warham Guild, which he helped found in 1912, had as its avowed purpose 'the making of all the "Ornaments of the Church and of the Ministers thereof" according to the standard of the Ornaments Rubric, and under fair conditions of labour'. (My emphasis)
What concerns me is that there seems to me two risks in the approach which some of the commentators seemed to be advocating.
The first is the simple one that, because it is difficult to verify anything about what goes on in the back rooms of a business several thousand miles away, people may simply decide that it's 'too difficult', and just place their orders elsewhere : so that those workers are deprived of employment, and thus wages - and whatever they may be, they are still more than nothing.
The second is that there is an increasing tendency in the 'First World' to assume that our own standards can - and should - be applied to the 'Third World', without any sort of critical reference to their - rather than our - realities; and apart from being unrealistic, this is a form of arrogance.
I have been fortunate enough to spend a great deal of time in India; and I am therefore very familiar with the real costs of living there - not the costs that tourists see, but the real costs of shopping, and housekeeping, and maintaining ordinary domestic life; and I hope I also have a realistic appreciation of what constitutes a decent standard of living there.
I am well aware that there are many people who have incomes broadly similar to what they might have in the UK; and whose lifestyle is apparently similar to what they would have here.
However, that is grossly unrealistic as a comparator.
If I go to the restaurant close to my usual hotel in Delhi with a friend, a meal for the two of us will probably cost about £30 - £35 : which is broadly what we'd pay for a similar meal at the Indian restaurant close to where I live in London.
However, I could also go to a small local eating house, close by, and have an equally good meal - albeit in slightly less splendid surroundings - for about £3 for the two of us; and that, of course, is where the vast majority of Indians would eat, if they ate out. Again, I know from experience that £10 spent on shopping to cook at home will buy more food than four adults can eat in a long weekend.
Similarly, whilst in the UK at present we're very concerned about heating costs for the elderly, that's hardly a problem in India. In fact there are many millions of families in India who live on about £20 a week; and if that's not lavish, it's by no means destitution. Those who can afford to live at 'western rates' are, in fact, very rich; they are the equivalent of those who can spend £1,000 on dinner in London, or £250,000 on a car.
The other thing that I am aware of is that finding out anything concrete about such things as pay rates in India is nearly impossible; one can prove anything in India, given a short time, and for a modest price - I have little doubt that, for say £250, and given perhaps a week, I could produce appropriate (and apparently authentic) documentary evidence of my having been validly elected President of India !
I realized all these problems quite quickly after I started going to India; and had to do quite a lot of thinking about how to deal with them. Did I, for instance, give tips the size I would in the UK - which by Indian standards would be enormous - when I ate in 'tourist' restaurants ? Or did I give 'local sized' tips . . . after all, I didn't know whether the staff kept them; I might just have been paying for the Boss's new Mercedes.
In the end I came up with what I thought was a pragmatic solution, which I commend to anyone facing this sort of dilemma.
I spend the money, and hope that the workers are being properly treated. Also, I recognize that anything they get is better than nothing; and that many of the things I buy in the UK may well have been made by the same people, but without me knowing about it, anyway.*
At the same time, I pass on a percentage of what I have saved by buying at Indian prices to a suitable charity in India, which can ensure that the money goes to someone who really needs it. There are, for example, many religious Orders in India who do wonderful work, and can really make good use of anything I give them - which makes sure that, one way or another, spending my money there does do some concrete good . . . and not just to my wallet.
* This also leads to another question, which I shall deal with in a future Post - that of buying things which are made in countries with oppressive regimes, where your money is probably helping to support the regime more than the worker.