Boris Johnson’s column out today deplores the high rates of tariffs on textiles and calls on Brussels to address the continuing injustice to Sri Lankan undergarments in particular:
The cuts could be spread, over time, to all the third world, and in the meantime they would stop jobs in Sri Lanka being relocated elsewhere, and encourage local industry.
All it would take is one meeting in Brussels, and less than three minutes to do
Sri Lanka deserves more than silence – cut tariffs on its bras
By all accounts the British nation put on a sensational performance yesterday. On the stroke of 12 the radios were dumb. The TVs stopped their blurting. The London Eye ceased its slow revolution and people stood in the streets, heads bowed in respect or raised in silent contemplation. Anyone so forgetful as to keep jabbering around the water-cooler was instantly shushed, and across the whole 455 million-strong EU it was the same, as people showed their solidarity – on the urgings of the European Council of ministers – with the sufferings of those on the shores of the Indian Ocean.
And of course there were a few who chose to be perverse. They pointed out that three minutes was really quite a long time, when you consider that we only keep silent for two minutes to honour the dead of the two world wars, the hundreds of thousands who voluntarily gave their lives that we might live in freedom.
These crabby types – and I confess I was one – were tempted to say that to fight and die for your country was a morally different kind of thing from being engulfed by a natural tragedy, no matter how awful, and that we ought to make sure to keep special our remembrance of that wartime sacrifice, and not to devalue it with too many minutes’ silence for other things.
There were some who made predictable complaints about “outbreaks of mass emotion” and “the age of Diana”; and there were some who wondered, a little caustically, whether this interesting new British phenomenon, the desire to exhibit collective feeling, was the welling up of an instinct suppressed by the decline of church-going.
But the important point, when the silence was finally broken, was that we of the curmudgeonly tendency did not appear to be in the majority. Some of us may have been initially resentful at the idea of being coerced, by some Brussels directive, into such a display; and yet by the end we were forced to concede that there must be something good in the simple fact that we spent some time, as a nation, meditating on the grim lives and deaths of those in developing countries.
There is a corner of my heart that secretly believes in the brotherhood of man, and it was cheered yesterday by the idea that the planet was brought closer together. All the same, three minutes is a very long time to keep thinking pious thoughts. I have read that the average British male is incapable of keeping his mind off sex for more than three minutes, and it seems very likely that even in Brussels, where they devised the three minutes’ silence, there were some bureaucrats who found themselves sinking into an erotic reverie.
I rather hope they did, because there is one thing the EU can do to help the people of the Indian Ocean that is more important – in the long-term – than aid, and certainly more useful than holding three minutes’ silence, and that is to address the continuing injustice to Sri Lankan bras.
If you are an Englishwoman, the chances are that you wear a bra, and if you wear a bra, there is a very high probability that you bought that garment at Marks & Spencer, and if you bought your bra at M & S it is a racing certainty that your bra was made in Sri Lanka; and if we really mean to do anything about the noble feelings that filled our hearts yesterday, and if we want to save jobs in that disaster-hit country, 54 per cent of whose exports are textiles, then we should lift the tariffs on brassieres, or soutien-gorges, as they are known in Brussels.
It would be fair to say that the bra tax, or tariff, is not in itself the worst of the evils of the world trade system, but it will do as a symbol of a huge and chronic injustice, which affects Sri Lanka and most of the poorest countries on earth. It is a system by which the West dumps subsidised agricultural produce – sugar is a good example – on third world markets, and so destroys the livelihoods of local farmers.
It is a system so grossly protectionist that if a third world producer tries to export to the EU some kinds of processed meats, where value has been added, he can face peak tariffs of 60 or 70 per cent. It is an arrangement so unfair and so discriminatory that Oxfam estimates the total income lost to the developing world at $40 billion, and the total jobs lost at 27 million. It means that huge quantities of cash – some of which might otherwise go to third world producers – are taken in tariffs by western treasuries; and if you want to know why national treasuries are so reluctant to scrap tariffs, consider that the US makes $8.7 billion on the imports of shoes and textiles alone.
We cannot hope to scrap the entire CAP overnight, and to end all the discriminatory tariffs that face third world producers; but since there is a very good chance, as I say, that the Eurocrats have been lost in speculation about bras during the three minutes, I hope that they start there.
Let us begin by scrapping the tariffs on bras, shirts and all other textiles, currently running at 7.2 per cent, from Sri Lanka, Thailand and other flood-hit areas. It is outrageous that this bra tax should be going to Gordon Brown, and if you start to feel virtuous about the amount of aid we are giving, set that against the quantity we are taking in tariffs.
It is true that the immediate beneficiaries of a tariff cut would be the importers, and it is true that other countries – such as India and China – would protest, since they also face discriminatory tariffs. But the cuts could be spread, over time, to all the third world, and in the meantime they would stop jobs in Sri Lanka being relocated elsewhere, and encourage local industry.
All it would take is one meeting in Brussels, and less than three minutes to do.