In the Western world we are very quick to demand specific ethical criteria relating to working conditions. However, the Pakistani sociologist Farah Naz, who earned her doctorate at the University of Klagenfurt and now researches and teaches at the University of Sargodha, raises the following issue: Before judging child labour and home-based work, we should understand the living and working conditions of the families concerned. Together with sociology professor Dieter Bögenhold, she has published a book with the title “Unheard Voices”. The publication forges links between the work of Pakistani football stitchers and the great global inequalities. The two authors discuss the main ideas of their book in this interview.
I assume you started work on your book before the outbreak of the Corona pandemic. Do you need to start the writing process anew or has nothing much changed?
Bögenhold: In her empirical work, Farah Naz dealt with the work of Pakistani football stitchers, with a strong focus on home-based work. For us, home-based work is connected with traditional forms of work, especially in the agricultural sector. Over the last century it has lost much of its importance. In Europe and North America, we have seen a notable increase in home-based work since the outbreak of the pandemic, while in many parts of the world it never disappeared. This shows us: Our forms of work are vastly different and yet there are some surprising parallels.
Naz: The people we are talking about here live in a world that seems totally different. We must keep in mind the different settings in which they carry out their needlework. Although working within one’s own four walls presents many challenges, it can also offer significant advantages for families. This work means a great deal to them. Unfortunately, the pandemic has had a severe impact on many of these people: Supply chains have been disrupted, many are out of work. As a result, conditions have become much tougher.
Who are these Unheard Voices that you hope to give a voice to?
Naz: I am referring to the many female home-based workers who produce footballs for the major sporting goods brands, working in their homes in Pakistan. They are part of a global production chain. Nowadays, these corporations proudly display human rights, ethical conditions, and corporate social responsibility in their so-called shop windows, but rarely take into account the perspectives of the women workers themselves. Their voices are absent from the discourse. We want to show what these people hope to achieve in their lives, what they dream of, what they wish for. Our focus is on their life stories. Most of them want a better future for their children. For this they depend on their work, which matters a great deal to them. This is an aspect that is generally either ignored or given too little consideration in the debates.
Why is this absent from the academic discourse?
Bögenhold: When we discuss economics and society in academic disciplines, we always relate our assessments to the society in which we happen to live. It is time we learned to think of the world as a global society. US billionaire Warren Buffett once said that the best thing that ever happened to him was being born in the US. The place of birth still determines what age you will ultimately reach: While the average life expectancy in the Sahara is 40 years, Norwegians live to the age of 80 and above. In our book, we look at global inequalities from the perspective of home-based workers and attempt to show that we all live in the same (world) system, but under completely different conditions. Life in global society is a most unfair game of chance at present.
Naz: What is happening is that sets of beliefs from the far side of the world are often imposed elsewhere. There is a desire to “improve” something in the interest of others, without actually knowing what those interests are. This is the case with child labour, for example. What all of us actually need is a better understanding of the realities of other people’s lives.
But if, as a consumer, I am unable to follow the CSR guidelines of the companies, what contribution can I make to fight inequality?
Naz: The problem with the corporate social responsibility policies of some companies is this: They want to display CSR in their shop windows, but they do not pay people fair wages. Profits are distributed unfairly along the production and marketing chain. This is what people need to keep in mind: Too much money ends up in too few pockets (and in the wrong ones). The issue therefore also has an economic dimension and reflects a problem of wealth distribution.
It seems obvious that companies will refuse to distribute profits more equitably, if it is to their own detriment.
Bögenhold: We are now seeing that consumer decisions already have a certain power and many people are making very conscious purchases. Ultimately, however, this will certainly not be enough. Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz once wrote: “Money is flowing uphill from the poor to the rich”. In order to counteract this inverted law of nature, we need a new global social contract, so that money and wealth, much like water, can once again flow “downhill”.
Naz: This new social contract should take into account all the perspectives, allowing all global players, large and small, to represent their interests. All in all, everyone one of us should know more about what drives people on other continents and “on the other side of the globe”.
Bögenhold: To give you an example of what happens when you don’t talk to all the players, I would like to mention the cobra effect. There was a time when there were too many snakes in India. The government offered financial incentives to those who killed snakes and brought them to the offices of the district council. This was a very expensive measure. But then people started to breed and kill snakes in order to collect the rewards. After a while, the authorities realised what the people were doing and the programme was stopped, at which point huge numbers of snakes that had already been bred were brought back to the forests and released. In the end there were more snakes than before. Conclusion: You have to talk to the players and understand their perspectives and not make plans without them, as this often leads to “unintended consequences”, to borrow the term the American sociologist Robert K. Merton once used.
Let me address my final question to you, Farah Naz: What is the core message you would like to convey to us from the “Unheard Voices”?
Naz: Some people find this hard to believe, but many women enjoy working from home. Until now, they have had little room for manoeuvre in the prevailing patriarchal structures; it was the economic crisis that made it possible for them to contribute to the family income by working from home. These are simply different ways of living and working. But to be able to do so means a great deal to these people. We should recognise them as workers and do more to improve conditions and pay. Finally, I would like to underline the following: In Pakistan, people stitch footballs by hand, while all over the world there are calls for the automation of these kinds of production processes. We need to be very clear on this: That is not the solution if we want to make the world a better place to live, certainly not for everyone, and also not in relation to environmental sustainability.