By Rabbi Anna Gerrard
There is an old Jewish joke about a boy who wants to know what is written inside a mezuzah so he opens one up to find the words: “Help, I’m stuck in a mezuzah factory!” It’s a classic and it’s very silly, but this week a true story of a similar nature hit the news. A shopper from Swansea found a hand-sewn extra label in a £10 dress bought from Primark that reads “forced to work exhausting hours”.
Another Swansea resident found a similar label in a top with the message “degrading sweatshop conditions” and a note in Chinese was found in a garment bought from the chain’s Belfast store.
There is widespread speculation about the origin of such notes. Are they grassroots cries for help from exploited factory workers or protest messages from local campaigners? Is it a hoax or a creative form of communication that we cannot afford to ignore?
Grassroots protest is part of our heritage. The Hebrew midwives, Shifrah and Puah, carried out the first documented example of civil disobedience in history. Generations of Converso Jews continued to practice their religion in secret. It is our turn to listen to the messages of protest and consider our reaction.
Although a full investigation needs to be carried out into these particular labels, it is a known problem that the cut-priced products we enjoy in the developed world are often produced at the expense of someone else in the developing world.
For the first three months of 2014 I experimented with Buying Local; everything I bought was made by small independent companies and sold in local independent shops. It was demanding, but exciting to discover new products and shops.
The highlights were the personal interactions with the people behind the products; the challenge at first was the extra expense that puts most people off responding to the issues behind the Primark labels.
Gradually this barrier broke down as I discovered creative ways to cut back, recycle, shop differently and consider my actual needs. We do not have to ignore these labels or feel disempowered; our individual choices really can make a difference.