How your flip-flops reveal the dark side of globalisation?

Caroline Knowles Professor of Sociology at Univ of London in this piece tracks the making of flip-flops:

Flip-flops are made from plastics, and so their story begins in the hydrocarbon economy – in the oilfields of the Middle East. The raw material from which they are made is drilled by migrant workers from Syria and southern India, who live in desert camps and work on drilling rigs for 12-hour shifts in searing heat.

Some of the petrochemicals extracted from crude oil are made into little plastic pellets in giant unpeopled plants in the South Korean city of Daesan, an important centre globally producing the building blocks that make all kinds of plastics. These pellets are made by teams of petrochemical workers who prowl the plant checking on the machinery they operate at a distance from computer screens.

The plastic pellets are bought by millions of small and medium-sized flip-flop factories throughout the world in production clusters where labour is cheap – places like Vietnam and various parts of Sub-Saharan Africa. Rural migrants still make them in southeast China, in small factories in industrial villages that sprout up on farmland. Plastic waste is heaped around the countryside like small colourful mountains of acid pink and blue. As China crept up the value chain, so production moved to other places and shaped the lives of other workers who live in equally precarious ways.

Flip-flops’ biggest markets are in low income countries. Ethiopia, a landlocked state in East Africa, is the one of the biggest consumers of cheap flip-flops. Here, I followed the containers of flip-flops from the Somaliland coast and across the Ethiopian border to discover that many of the flip-flop routes are designed to evade import duties.

A shifting matrix of highly skilled smugglers move them at great personal risk. As they arrive in the Mercato, Addis Ababa’s vast central market, smuggled and officially imported flip-flops are indistinguishable, except for their price: the smuggled ones are cheaper and appeal to a poor population that lives carefully on slender resources.

The flip-flop story ends, or so I thought, on a landfill site called Koshe on the outskirts of Addis Ababa. Here I spoke to some of the 200 “scratchers”, as they call themselves, who pick up waste materials like metal, wood and plastic that can be sold to recycling plants. The site is visually spectacular – vast and piled with rotting debris in muted colours: its scratchers in the same murky colours melting into the landscape.

Dark side of global supply chains:

This flip-flop trail pieces together an unfamiliar picture of globalisation as an ad hoc mosaic of shifting connections between lives and ways of getting by, rather than the smooth operation of global commodity chains we have been led to believe in. Connecting smugglers, disposable workers, garbage pickers and the poorest of consumers, this is one of globalisation’s darker stories.


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