British welfare laws and foreign competitors

On Tuesday, the Guardian printed a lengthy article about welfare standards - or lack of them - on pig farms on the Continent (Europe). Now, as Muslims we may not be too fond of pigs and we don’t eat their meat, but animal welfare is important and we don’t like to see any animal suffer, particularly when it’s just to maximise some guy’s profit, and most of us will have heard the hadeeth about the man who gave water to a dog in his shoe. Britain has welfare laws which regulate the amount of space in which the animals should be kept, but the upshot has been that demand for British pork has slumped by 36%; 60% of the pork products eaten in the UK are imported.

The treatment the animals receive in parts of Europe is appalling - being kept in the dark because it reduces noise, having their tails docked (without anaesthetic) to stop them biting each other because they have nothing else to do, male piglets being castrated without anaesthetic, and sows being kept in stalls, which prevent them moving and inhibit lying down and getting up again, for the entire length of their pregnancies. But it’s cheap, and for some reason we can impose laws which ban all these things, but we can’t stop our farmers being undercut by farmers overseas who still do them.

It’s not just animal welfare laws which make this country uncompetitive. Most of our manufactured goods, from the things we wear to the things we cook with, are made abroad, often in far eastern countries where workers are paid much less than they are here. Many of these countries are not democracies (particularly China) and union rights are restricted or non-existent. Earlier in the week, Wedgwood, a British pottery company going back 200 years, went into administration. Admittedly, what I have heard is that Wedgwood is not the part of the Waterford-Wedgwood company that is unprofitable, and there is talk of it being bought out by an American company (and I do not advocate supporting genuine “lame ducks” like Viyella, which has been unprofitable for years despite shifting production to China, and went into administration this week), but the fact remains that the pottery industry, which used to be a major employer in the north Midlands, is a shadow of its old self because it cannot compete with imports, both from southern Europe and the Far East.

I am not advocating protectionism for the sake of it, but if we have minimum wages, statutory leave, and other human and animal welfare laws, unless we apply them to foreign imports as well, they just destroy jobs. There is little point in having a Labour party unless it actually protects workers, and this country will be ill equipped to support itself if supply lines to places like the Far East were cut, either by war or by shortage of the oil which powers the ships and planes (and while we are on that subject, we should consider the environmental impact of all that shipping). To a certain extent, you can pay workers a decent wage by local standards and still compete with a country which has a highly-rated currency, which may be the direction some of the “old” Far Eastern countries are taking (e.g. Taiwan, South Korea), but whatever the quality of their goods, they will not be able to compete with sweatshop economies if their products perform adequately. Also, there are a lot of expensive foreign imports which are made in sweatshops, particularly clothes. They do not maximise value for money for the buyer, but only profits for the producer.

If education were being conducted in this way, with British schools as commercial entities subjected to welfare standards competing with foreign schools without, in which parents could cheaply send their children to foreign schools with mediocre teachers and care staff (since these would likely be boarding schools) who were delinquents (don’t laugh - they were at the boarding school I went to), there would be a public outcry and I would expect that there would be pressure to stop the racket. Right now, we are beholden to the “leave it to the market” Thatcherite dogma, and to odious international agreements such as are imposed by the WTO and the EU, but we must use the opportunity of the changing economic climate to break these agreements and reduce the competitiveness of low-wage, long-distance imports, and the social devastation which follows when industries collapse, as has already been seen in post-industrial towns both here and in the USA. It can be stopped, and must be.

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