Inequality

  • The widening gap between the world’s richest and poorest people is tearing societies apart. Too many still toil in extreme poverty. In contrast, wealth is increasingly concentrated in the hands of a few, who can use it to capture disproportionate power to shape the future. The widening gap between the richest and poorest is damaging economies and pushing more people into poverty. There are practical ways to close the gap.

No country should be forced to choose between paying back debts or providing healthcare

Many countries are burdened with massive debt owed to richer countries, private banks & multilateral institutions, constraining their governments from being able to free up resources to spend on public health. Photo: Aurelie Marrier D'Unienville/Oxfam

Over the past months, we've seen some of the richest countries in the world struggle with the effects of Covid-19 and the health and economic emergency it has brought in its wake. But they have the resources to cushion the blows, while poor countries face these huge threats with few resources.

The pandemic has overwhelmed some of the best healthcare systems in the world. However, the crisis could get much worse as the virus takes hold in countries where people are already suffering from a lack of adequate or affordable healthcare. For instance:

  • The Central African Republic has only three ventilators for the entire country.
  • Tanzania has one doctor for every 71,000 people.
  • Kenya has only 130 beds in intensive care units for a population of nearly 50 million people.

We know it is the countries with universal and publicly provided healthcare that will be best placed to get through this crisis. Yet, in most countries, health services are desperately weak and deeply unequal – you only get treatment if you have money.

Which brings us to debt.

Faced with an impossible choice – pay back debts or invest in health care

Many countries are burdened with massive amounts of debt owed to richer countries, private banks and multilateral institutions such as the IMF and World Bank.

The level of public external debt accumulated by developing countries is staggering. In 2018, it had reached €389 billion for 73 countries. If we look at 2020 alone, the 76 poorest countries are due to pay €34.6 billion. This has constrained their governments from being able to free up resources to spend on public prevention and response.

The DRC has less than half the number of nurses it needs. In just four months the country spends as much on debt as it would cost to pay the annual salary for 141,000 extra nurses needed to provide health care for all. Photo: Scherazade Bouabid/Oxfam

Every euro of debt repayment is a euro that can't be used to protect people from disease, hunger and destitution. Last year 64 of the world's poorest countries spent more on paying back debts to rich countries and financial institutions than on healthcare.

Rich countries must #CancelTheDebt to save lives

Healthcare systems in some of the world's poorest countries need an urgent cash injection to tackle this crisis. Debt relief is the fastest way of getting money to where it's needed most. It could free up €34 billion this year alone, to help these countries fight the virus and its brutal economic impacts.

In April 2020, the G20 agreed a temporary suspension of debt payments for 73 countries. This was a welcome first step, but it is nowhere near enough.

The agreement failed to address the massive debts to private creditors like banks and hedge funds, or some of the biggest multilateral lenders like the World Bank – to which many developing countries owe huge sums.

Together we can protect each other and create a fair future for us all

This is a global public health emergency bigger than anything humanity has ever seen. If left unchecked, Covid-19 could cause up to 40 million deaths around the world and push half a billion more people into poverty. The speed at which the pandemic has spread around the world shows that countries cannot defeat the virus on their own – more than ever we need a global response.

The demands for debt cancellation have continued to build over the last few months – from leaders in the African Union, to over 800,000 people who have signed petitions calling for urgent debt relief, including in support of Oxfam’s letter from health workers around the world.

Join us, and thousands of other campaigners around the world in calling for G20 leaders to #CancelThe Debt and help fight Covid-19 in the world's poorest countries.

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The Carbon Inequality Era

In 1990, we entered a new global era.

From 1990 until 2015, as much carbon entered our atmosphere as had been emitted in all previous years in our history.

Our new report, Confronting Carbon Inequality, shows that responsibility for this rapid emissions rise is shockingly unequal. In this period, the richest 10 percent emitted the same amount of carbon as the rest of the world combined.

And the very richest one percent of people – the global elite – emitted double the amount of carbon as the poorest 50 percent of humanity.

This is the era of extreme carbon inequality.

Who are the richest 10 percent?

If your net income is over €32,500 annually, the chances are you’re one of the richest 10 percent of people in the world.

That 10 percent – around 630 million people at the time of the study – live in every continent, and there are wealthy communities in every country. A sizeable proportion of the population in North America and Europe sit comfortably in this demographic. By contrast, in most parts of Africa, Asia, and Latin America, the number of people on the global 10 percent rich list is tiny.

The emissions of the richest largely come from flying more, buying more polluting cars such as SUVs, and driving them further. These are often known as ‘lifestyle’ emissions.

Additionally, many of the emissions we all produce are ‘embedded’ – this means that they are happening because we live in a world that still relies on fossil fuels. In cooler climates, people need to heat their homes, for example, and gas is still the most accessible option. Many of us can make climate-conscious choices when it comes to the food we eat, the clothes and tech we buy – but all come with some carbon cost in this system.

So as well as individual action, we need radical, far-reaching change to the system if we are to truly confront carbon inequality.

Why now?

Time is short. There is a limit to the total amount of carbon that can be pumped into the atmosphere. Breaching this limit, the so-called ‘carbon budget’, will trigger runaway global warming, that we can no longer control or remedy. Think of it like filling a bath – there is still some space left before we reach the top, but if we don’t turn off the taps now, it’s going to overflow.

Over the last decades, this remaining ‘space’ in the atmosphere could have been used to lift all of humanity out of poverty, towards a decent standard of living. Adding some carbon emissions by connecting people to the electricity grid while we’re still transitioning to renewables, for example.

Instead, the carbon budget has been spent by the already-rich on luxury emissions. If we continue as we are, we will blow the carbon budget in the next 10 years. Carbon inequality is driving us towards climate catastrophe.

So, what do we do now?

Back to the bath analogy – just as every drop of water increases the risk of an overflow, every tonne of carbon moves us towards the climate brink.

But there is hope if we all play a role individually and collectively. COVID-19 showed us that huge changes are possible when necessary. Flights were grounded, new bike lanes appeared in cities, and working from home cut traffic congestion. Governments and businesses showed they can be radical when there is no other choice.

As we turn towards recovery from the pandemic, governments must act to cut the emissions of the richest and increase support to the poorest. The four ways to do this are:

  1. Tax the richest more, to help curb spiralling inequality.
  2. Introduce an added cost to luxury emissions such as private jets, SUVs or super yachts. Use the extra cash to fund universal social protection and healthcare.
  3. Invest more in low-carbon projects like public transport and energy efficiency, and guarantee decent jobs.
  4. Ban advertising in public spaces, especially for high-carbon luxury products.

Looking at the big picture, we must profoundly change the way we measure economic success. Let’s learn from the past decades and prioritise care, the sustainability of life, health and wellbeing, instead of pursuing endless economic growth.

2020 must mark the end of the carbon inequality era. How we shape the next decades, the post-COVID era, is up to us.

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Dhaka’s garment workers – campaigning for a living wage and safe work conditions

This is the latest of our #SecondHandSeptember blogs on the human and environmental costs of throwaway fashion, and how shopping second hand can help both people and planet.

In Bangladesh, a worker would need to be paid more than 4.5 times more than the current minimum wage to afford a decent standard of living – and almost nine times more to support a family.  

Most workers earn 8,300 Taka (€82) a month, but need 16,000 Taka (€160) for a living wage. This which would cover basic needs such as food, healthcare, education, clothing and transport. 

Oxfam supports formal and informal garment workers through a programme which funds four leadership and empowerment centres for women in the slums. These facilities are training centres where the women can develop new skills and career opportunities.  

We provide business training and cash support to start small businesses. Many participants are doing well, making dresses with sewing machines, or baking goods to sell at school canteens. The programme is also helping women with training on how to cope with sexual harassment at work.  

Oxfam also has a Living Wage campaign for women’s economic empowerment. Working with our partners, including the Bangladesh Centre for Workers Solidarity and the Bangladesh Institute for Labour Studies, we work for decent employment, safe workplaces, a living wage and social protection. 

 

“Our women need support from the global community.”

Rifat, who works with the Bangladesh Centre for Workers Solidarity, said, “Many female garment workers face challenges in their personal lives because of social norms being cast aside. Women have left family members caring for their children and can face isolation, violence or sexual harassment and bullying in work. Some owners think women do less work than men so they have lower positions as helpers or operators and men get highest positions. 

"When we started the work, we saw many challenges. We could see the management was not aware of, and workers did not know, their rights. Now they are more aware and they can talk for themselves and represent themselves.
“Big brands have a responsibility for ensuring workers rights. The government rates are not sufficient to provide food, education, rent and healthcare. The market prices are high here – a living wage is important. It takes brands, buyers and our national government to respond. They contribute to the economy and we need to help them.”

 

“I survived in 2012. I jumped out a fourth-floor window to survive. I didn’t want to burn. I knew this way if I jumped my parents would get my body.”

Sumi Abedin jumped from a fourth-floor window during the 2012 Tazreen factory fire, a blaze which claimed the lives of more than 110 workers. At the time, she was earning the equivalent of €36 a month and was struggling to get by. Sumi broke her right hand and leg, had head injuries and was hospitalised for six months. Through the International Labour Organisation, she received compensation worth 250K taka, or approximately €2,500. Some people got more depending on their injuries. Sumi now campaigns for workers’ rights.

Why is she speaking out on workers’ rights?

“For awareness and the greater good – to help other people get compensation for what they lost in fires. It doesn’t cover the trauma but it’s still something.”

Sumi went to the US to speak about her experiences – before that, she had never been outside the country. The buyers were denying Tazreen workers had been injured but she was proof they had. Sumi was 17, almost 18, when the fire broke out. She had started working in the facility at the age of 13 even though workers are supposed to be 18.

“Currently things have improved a little regarding fire safety. Most workers have husbands so they can get by but it’s not easy. Many leave kids behind with grandparents and are forced to live separated from their children. They send money to support them each month.”

Sumi meets her child every two months. Others only see them once or twice a year, at Eid when they can afford to travel home.

We asked Sumi if she would ever work in a garment factory again. She said she would not, nor would she allow her daughter to.

“We don’t want any more disasters like Rana Plaza and Tazreen. No parents should lose their children this way.”

The situation for garment workers in Dhaka is just one part of the story – it tells of the human cost of throwaway fashion. But there is also a vast environmental cost to our fashion choices.

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Climate change, COVID-19 and throwaway fashion – how Dhaka’s Garment Workers are some of the hardest hit

During #SecondHandSeptember we will have a series of blogs about the human and environmental costs of throwaway fashion, and how shopping second hand can help both people and planet.

Garment workers in Dhaka, Bangladesh

Changes in climate and river erosion are forcing people to migrate from rural areas to Dhaka, the capital city of Bangladesh, where they can make some form of living to provide for themselves and their family.

Eighty-three percent of Bangladesh’s total exports are ready-made garments, accounting for five percent of the global garment trade – and with an available, young, and cheap workforce, Bangladesh is an attractive and competitive option for large western fashion brands.

But clothes, produced cheaply, often means low wages and poor working conditions for garment workers.

There is an estimated four million garment workers in Bangladesh – 80 percent of whom are women. Nine out of 10 people working in this industry live in poverty, earning an average salary of €24 a week or €4 a day, with some earning as little as €3 a day.

Much like other capital cities across the world, rents are high. Workers tend to share their living space – often a single room – with up to five other people. As COVID-19 infiltrates our towns and cities, this type of cohabitation now poses news challenges in containing spread and maintaining physical distance.

The COVID-19 pandemic has devastated the global garment supply chains, resulting in over one million workers being fired or furloughed. All parties are feeling the impact of COVID-19; however, not all parties are equal. Factories operate on paper-thin margins and have far less access to capital than their customers, and workers very rarely earn enough to accumulate any savings. Due to order cancellation or postponement by big brands, workers were told to go home with no money. One woman Oxfam spoke with said that:

 “Death from coronavirus is a maybe, but death from not earning is certain.”

Labonie shops for her food at the local market

A living wage is a basic human right.

Labonie Akter lives in a Dhaka slum with her sister. Her husband is a rickshaw puller and lives back in their home village with her son.

Her son was four when she left. He is now 10 years old. She told us:

“Brands and buyers are getting richer while we live in a cycle of poverty and our lives are stagnant. I hope things get better in the future…”

Three of the richest men in the fashion industry are worth over $100 billion while the women at the bottom of the supply chain are paid a pittance.

Garment workers face poor housing, high living costs, and no medical care, and are often forced to do overtime at the same rate. Women do not get proper maternity leave and they are forced to work long hours to meet order demands.

People tend to run out of money by the end of the month, take loans out, and run into debt to survive. They also experience family separation, and in some cases, children are taken out of school to work in factories to pay the bills. This keeps the cycle of poverty going.

International pressure is helping and the government has set up a special task force on wages. However, big brands should be using their influence to ensure collective bargaining is respected and should invest a portion of their profits in improving the industry.

Currently, two percent of the retail price of a typical garment goes to the women who make them. Less than one percent of the production cost would be a huge benefit to workers if brands absorbed it.

We want brands to commit to a living wage and publish a timetable for a transparent supply chain. And we are seeing a shift at a policy level and credible commitments from some brands, with some already 80 percent of the way there.

Garmet workers in Dhaka, Bangladesh

Basic Shirts is one Bangladeshi factory working with Oxfam and the UK’s John Lewis Foundation to help the safety and security of their workers.

Basic Shirts Chairperson Mohammad Nurul Islam said: “Profits can be six times more than our unit price. I understand there are shipping and transport costs – but every little more they pay means we can pay the women more.

“If we are paid five cent more per shirt, that’s five cent I can pay to the worker – lives will improve and workers can enjoy their life.”


The situation for garment workers in Dhaka is just one part of the story - it tells of the human cost of throwaway fashion. But there is also a vast environmental cost to our fashion choices.

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