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February 19, 2008


Rob Wipond

If you are starving in the street, and I offer you food, bed and 10 cents an hour to clean toilets with a toothbrush 12 hours a day 7 days a week, you are in fact "better off". However, what I have done is exploit you, pure and simple. I have blatantly taken advantage of your extreme situation and turned it to my own advantage. Yes, if I instead fire you, you're even worse off again... Oh, gee, what do I do? My hands are tied! What a moral conundrum! I have no choice but to exploit you for your own good!

Wait. How about I simply pay you (or your parents...) a fair wage, based on what your work is truly worth?

Oh, that is, if I can be bothered to make sure that money is even getting past the pimps to you.



Mostly right on.

Manufacturing is exploitive. Long hours, dog work and low pay.

Why don't we just take the money (say a living wage or bonus) and pay the parents? Why that's exactly what the CEO (David) of MEC pondered. Why don't we just make lump sum payments to the workers and their community? These are real possibilities and obviously need to be thought out with a whole bunch of people including the finance guys at MEC.

Part of figuring this out lays with the "chicken and egg" conundrum. Paying factory workers more money mean charging higher prices. Charging higher prices mean customers paying more. Who commits first?

Our real world experience has shown us time after time that price increases typically lead to reduced demand. Nonetheless, this will not stop MEC from costing out the potential increases to get more money into the hands of workers.

The big challenge is not figuring out the financial model it's successfully passing real price increases to cost sensitive consumers, which by way includes bloggers as well.



A different approach might have been to source the work to a factory that does not employ children, thereby sending a message that the membership does not tolerate having kids sew their bike armour together.

Perhaps the new factory will have higher costs. As a member, one would expect to pay more for ethically sourced or organically grown goods.


Hi Dave,

Thanks for your comment.

Child labour is tricky. Frequently, kids work because its a source of income for them and their family. Large parts of the world live on less than $1 dollar a day. In rural China, families live on $100-200 a year.

Factories present an economic opportunity for them.

Child labour is illegal and morally repugnant. If we think of the above, we can see why it happens.


I feel that there are many things that could be done much differently however, in many instances this would mean the Co-op would perhaps run itself into the ground. I am a firm believer in knowledge especially when that means increased awarenes. This blog and the information found on the website are great ways for people to start thinking about where the products are coming from. In my experience I have found than most people know very well where thier product comes from, what they often don't know is what conditions, wages and hours the clothing comes from. Perhaps increasing the awareness at the store level will help to get members thinking more about the products thier buying and how things can be better. I'm not talking about saying what we've done, I'm talking about creating an awareness of the problems that are being faced, we have excellent examples of commitment but that doesn't change the fact that it keeps happening. I would suggest that bringing the awareness into the stores, and acting out our community involvement by sponsering films, art and incredible voice that allows for people to become engaged in these issues. I know we want the member experience to be a great one at MEC, I know because I work here, and having people depressed while shopping doesn't exactly boost thier confidence in the products and knowledge but it can simply be excused from the minds of members, employees and even other companies.


Hi Braydem,

Thanks for your thoughts. I think your right in terms of better connecting the stores and local community on these issues.

We've done a few things in this direction.

1. We've started to promote ethical sourcing through our catalogues and store signage. The goal is to encourage a conversation.
2. MEC is teaming up with Engineers without Borders to reach about 50,000 students this year. Our goal is promote a greater understanding of the developing world plus MEC's commitment to the outdoors.

These initiatives are small but at least a start. I encourage you to contact your local SER person and to implement some of your great suggestions.


Rob Wipond

Well, I hope they get around to actually doing what you say they're "pondering". Or at least providing a clear reason why it can't be done, so that we could come up with a better solution. However, it seems odd to me it's taken MEC management years to begin pondering a potential solution I came up with in 12 seconds of thinking about the particular problem you presented. How do you explain that? Maybe MEC should hire me to solve these problems for them.

I think another poster raised a good point. Give out more info in the store about the product sources with different options and prices, and then let the buyers decide how exploitative they want to be. Why not do that?

And why not try to organize other stores to do it as a collective movement, rather than undercutting each other at every turn?

But the key thing is, I don't get the conundrum. Saying that the negative effects of paying someone to work in slave-like conditions at slave level wages has to be balanced against the higher price I might pay for shoes is like saying the negative effects of me bashing someone's head with a hammer has to be balanced against how momentarily happy it might make me to do it. Sorry for the grotesque analogy, but that's honestly how yours sounded to me.


Hi Rob,

Thanks for the comment. Coming up with solutions in the virtual world is easy and takes about 12 seconds if you're quick with a keyboard. Making them real is difficult. Take child labour. Kids working in the factory or any other sector are driven by employers who want to exploit cheap labour. That is true. Child labour is also caused by economic desperation and necessity. For example, almost half of the world lives on less than $2 dollars a day. In rural areas of China and India, families subsist on about $100-200 dollars a year. This doesn't cover health care, education and many other basic human needs. Furthermore, in these regions there is little economic mobility. As a consequence, children leave home to find an income and hopefully remit a small portion to support their family.

Regrettably, child labour is a mix of exploitive employers, economic deprivation, lack of schooling opportunities and an incumbent hope for something better. Solving this systemic and widespread social malaise requires more than just throwing money at the victim. It means getting the kid out of the factory and into a school. It then means having schools to go to and reasonable jobs after graduation. And it means ensuring impoverished families are weaned off a child's remittances.

That's why we just can't hand a wad of cash to the 14.5 year old. We need to understand her full circumstances and hook her up with a local NGO to supervise the transition. And we need to intimately understand the fragility of these families. Leaving the factory has cut off all access to the girl.

Every Saturday, I spend about $150 dollars on groceries for a family of 3. If my supermarket increased prices by 20-40% to cover dramatic pay increases and climate change, I'll probably take the bulk of my shopping elsewhere. I betcha you I'm like most consumers.

When I'm ready to make those financial sacrifices, the supermarket will have a better chance of solving some of these chronic and widespread problems. Businesses and consumers all have to come to the table and make fundamental changes. Until then there will be compromises to the dignity of our fellow human beings. This is the harsh reality whether we like it or not.

Roland Burton

MEC can choose to fix the world, or choose to not contaminate itself with the bad things that are out there, which seems to be the current choice. If we want to fix the world, keep in mind that old terrorist motto "don't shoot ALL the hostages". Once you have decided to not do business with these people, you no longer have any say in their business practices.


Hi Burton,

Thanks for you email. I'm not quite sure what you're saying. MEC is trying to swim against the tide while running a business that is a ocean in strength.

We do what we can do. Cheers


I think you'd be surprised how many people would make the "ethical" choice, when given the option. The problem with shopping right now is that most of the time the consumer doesn't know where there money goes when they are paying more money for a product. It's one thing to pay $150 for brand name shoes vs. $40 for big box brand, but where does the extra $110 go? Does it go to the workers, or does it go to or to the brand name company?

On the contrary, look at Fair Trade goods like coffee. As awareness grows, so do the sales. It costs more, but you know that the extra money makes a difference in someone's life.

I would love to see a guaranteed, fair trade type clothing product. If it cost more than the equivalent sweat shop labour product, I would be happy to pay the extra amount. I can't suggest how you would go about guaranteeing it, but I think you would be surprised to see how many people would snap it up. Products like that could be introduced in the store as supplemental to regular products, and the number of products available would probably increase over time as popularity grew.

It's something I'm looking out for anyways. I understand the fairness costs, and I think many others do as well.


Hi JB,

I think you're right. Providing options to consumers may tap consumer might in affecting change. Looking at one or two fairly trade products is a smart way to go.

It's an idea that's loosely been explored.



I appreciate MEC's efforts to do the ethical thing in third world countries but here's a thought. Buy Canadian Made. We are losing our factories to third world countries. Our jobs are disappearing at an alarming rate. Companys that buy overseas are always touting the fact that they are trying to improve conditions. Canadians aren't stupid. It comes down to the bottom line for a company. I don't begrudge anyone a profit, however, a pair of shoes being produced in a third world country costing at the MOST $5.00 (if that)to produce and retailing here for $200.00 is a hell of a lot of profit. I can point to companies that are crying poor when their profit is affected. Of course they pass on the increase to consumers. And let's not forget those tax deductions. We pay more and the companies bottom line isn't affected one bit. Why not start a small factory overseas and pay decent wages (according to THEIR standards). You would have workers lined up at your door wouldn't you? That would never happen and where it HAS happened (I'm thinking a very large shoe company in North America that did that very thing), the backlash was incredible and a lot of people STOPPED buying their shoes because by OUR standards, they were still exploiting. It's all smoke and mirrors and bottom line.I buy Canadian made any chance I get. Why? Because that's our country we're supporting the workers of. Buy Canadian made.Union label if you can. Then you KNOW for a fact that the people doing the work are getting decent wages and working conditions. I work with immigrants from several countries (Pakistan, China and England to name 3). They are hard working, honest and just really great people. They come here, start working for a company and STILL they are taken advantage of because they are immigrants and won't speak up because they are afraid of losing their jobs. In THIS country and still exploited. Our companys count on it. Look at Maple Leaf in Winnipeg, for example. Closed the Winnipeg plant BUT they are bringing in Chinese workers for the Brandon plant. Funny that. It's all bottom line.



Hi LT,

Thanks for the comments. Yes, maybe a solution is to run one's own factory overseas. Or to partner with very enlightened factory managers. The latter is something we're always on the search for.


Ruth Anne Wills

Having raised my family on the farm. We started with $500 for a dwn pymt. As our family grew, ther kids which I homeschooled helped with the work. The 3 yr old made 2 cents per box. He was part of the family team. The kid were paid 1 cent a grasshoper head...when planting, picking, sorting and packing crops, they were usually paid "piece work". Alot of real time education takes place in these conditions. The kids had to help with all the chores around the farm and house.

The kids loved their childhood!

On the other side...they had alot of freedom to be kids, hide in a bin out of sound range of the house to finish a in the creek. ride the horse.

They saved their money for what they wanted. Sometimes the family was in a dry time, and the kids did offer from their own resources to pitch in.

They had hockey, dance, and piano lessons for years.

My point...child labour can be more appropriate than our schools, if they are modified to be places that foster good development of happy, healthy children.

Our standards of acceptable methods of raising our children and caring for our elderly in this country needs serious review and change.

In a research and development project to help women in Nicaragua grow crops to better support their families, my eyes were opened to the fact that the reason they seemed to need more was the demand for liquor, cars and computers from the kids, etc.

The visual I had when visiting the various patio gardens and the families, was a culture that works far better than ours. Four generations of women, including children sitting together weaving hats for sale. Yes they has a dirt floor in their house, very modest, clean, the children were very clean, they had their garden for food and medicine....what I saw is a sustainable community being violated by the lust for money and products they are being sold...including education and western medicine.

The best way to help them that I can see is to have them teach their cultural success.

The image of, squattiing down, eye to eye with a child when speaking with them and respecting what they say, integrating it into action to come up with a better solution, is a model I think we could use respecting their culture and their families.

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