News & Politics

Bringing Down Niketown

Since the sweatshop issue hit national consciousness in 1995, says one activist, "We have had more brilliant success than anyone could have dreamed." While organized labor and human rights groups contributed much to that success, many other fronts also contributed: shareholder battles, legislative debates, international regulations, lawsuits and purchasing guidelines. David Moberg argues that technical solutions are less important than building a comprehensive movement that can grow and sustain itself for the long haul.
Maybe it was the shock provoked by reports in 1995 that seventy-two immigrant Thai workers were held captive in a barbed-wire compound in El Monte, California, making brand-name garments for seventeen hours a day at about a dollar an hour. Or the TV tears from talk-show personality Kathie Lee Gifford when investigators revealed that 13-to-15-year-old Honduran girls were working fifteen-hour days making clothes under her label for Wal-Mart -- with tags pledging that part of the profits would go to help children. These were not the first public warning signs that the clothes, shoes, toys and electronic products Americans buy are increasingly made under appalling conditions -- extremely long work hours, physical or sexual abuse on the job, a pittance for pay (often 25 cents an hour or less) and sometimes with child or forced labor. But 1995 proved to be a turning point for a steadily growing campaign against global sweatshops that has exploded in the United States and is increasingly linked to campaigns in Europe and parts of Asia.Since then, argues Charles Kernaghan of the National Labor Committee, "We have had more brilliant success than anyone could have dreamed." Kernaghan's NLC grew out of progressive union opposition to Reagan's Central America policies in the eighties and has made many of the dramatic public expos*s, including the Kathie Lee hypocrisy. "We're now at the beginning of a national movement," he says. Fewer than a dozen small labor rights groups and UNITE, the garment and textile union, have helped to inspire protests by church groups, local unions, politicians and students, as television and print stories spread the word. "The antisweatshop and labor rights movement is out of control," says Kernaghan. "There's this wild creativity of different organizations. The companies can't deal with it."No company wants to become the next Nike, which -- despite its elaborate public relations response -- has been dogged for most of the decade by well-documented charges that its closely controlled contractors pay subminimum wages, prefer countries with regimes that suppress labor organizing, expose workers to hazardous conditions, demand long working hours and even physically abuse employees at Nike's Southeast Asian factories. Other campaigns have erupted as well against companies like the Gap, Starbucks, Disney, Reebok, Phillips-Van Heusen and Wal-Mart, which cultivate a hip or wholesome image but dreadfully abuse their workers -- most often employed through contractors. In an address to the American Apparel Manufacturers Association, the incoming chairman, James Jacobsen, warned fellow business executives, according to Women's Wear Daily, that "the ongoing controversy about overseas sweatshops was causing anxiety on Wall Street," leaving investors "skittish" about industry prospects.Yet when Kernaghan talks about a national movement that has made a virtue out of disarray, he means more than the high-profile PR campaigns against the Nike swoosh and Wal-Mart's phony promises. The sweatshop issue breaks out, sometimes unpredictably, on many other fronts: shareholder battles, legislative debates, international regulations, lawsuits, purchasing guidelines, the creation of corporate codes of conduct and the monitoring of workplaces. Religious institutions and union-influenced pension funds, for example, now regularly offer stockholder resolutions demanding action against labor rights abuses. In January US unions and labor rights groups filed a multimillion-dollar lawsuit against several dozen big retailers and manufacturers on a wide range of labor-law and business-fraud violations, including involuntary servitude and selling as "Made in the USA" garments produced under sweatshop conditions in the Northern Mariana Islands in the Pacific.UNITE is pushing state and federal legislation to make retailers jointly liable for sweatshop violations by their contractors. Dozens of municipalities and school districts (private and parochial) have adopted purchasing policies to avoid goods made under sweatshop conditions. And the United States, Canada and Mexico may soon face a joint complaint, under NAFTA's side agreement on labor, that all three governments have failed to enforce their legislation against sweatshops.The latest phase -- and one of the most important -- of this multifaceted movement is the student campaign against the sweatshop manufacture of caps, sweatshirts and other clothing bearing the names and symbols of some of the nation's largest and most prestigious universities. Started by students at Duke and elsewhere who had spent a summer working with unions, the movement has spread to about 100 campuses. Students are demanding -- and winning at least some agreement -- that university administrations publicly disclose the locations of factories that make university-licensed clothing and that employers respect workers' rights and pay a living wage.Organizationally, the antisweatshop movement has made impressive gains and is poised to push for change in multiple arenas. Yet the frustrating truth is that, so far, it has won only modest, episodic victories for workers in poor countries, and sometimes even those are snatched away as contractors shut down and move or corporations find new contractors. Also, even when pressure brings progress, it is hard to trust the companies, who often revert to bad old ways quickly. It's a delicate time for the antisweatshop movement. Much-needed mainstream support is beginning to grow. Now it needs victories to inspire hope that a popular campaign can really change conditions. And it must keep people engaged and outraged, heading off dangerous illusions that corporate promises reduce the need for vigilance.The movement has largely grown through expos*s of flagrant abuses overseas by contractors for high-profile, image-conscious corporations. Many of them, like Nike, stoked the fires by making self-serving PR claims while refusing to take relatively cheap and easy steps to treat workers better. After years of paying its Indonesian workers less than the minimum wage, for example, Nike recently announced it was raising wages to 43 percent above the minimum wage and released a report by independent monitors of great improvements at a Vietnamese factory, where leaked findings by a corporate auditor last year revealed widespread violations of law and safety standards. Both moves are welcome, but Nike's wage increase left Indonesian workers earning about 20 cents an hour, one-fourth less in purchasing power than before the economic crisis, and the improvements at the Vietnamese factory have not yet been matched at other Nike contractors.Consumer power propels the drive against sweatshops today, but most organizers think that this alone will produce only limited advances. Some strategists, like Trim Bissell, who links a network of local activists through the Internet into the Campaign for Labor Rights (www.summersault.com/~agj/clr), and Stephen Coats, executive director of the USLabor Education in the Americas Project, argue that generating sympathy with tales of outrageous abuse isn't enough; antisweatshop groups should focus on solidarity with workers who are actively organizing unions. "If we organize around worker empowerment, if we make that the issue the person on the street accepts, we've got an issue with long legs," Bissell said. "It's one thing to clean up a factory and get the kids out, but it's a shift in the relation of capital and labor when workers can organize for their rights."It is easier, however, to generate widespread outrage over child labor or hazardous factories. Also, there are few global efforts under way to organize sweatshop workers, although the International Textile, Garment and Leather Workers' Federation has just begun to fund a new organizing drive in Central America. Even in the United States, it has proven exceedingly difficult to organize small shops one by one, especially when work can easily be moved out of the country. When UNITE tried to organize sweatshops in the Los Angeles area that were producing for Guess?, for example, the company moved most of its work to factories in Mexico.Other antisweatshop groups, while acknowledging the need for unions, think that NGOs can broker deals that improve conditions for workers. By negotiating codes of conduct that protect workers' rights, set minimum standards and provide monitors to make sure codes are observed, they argue, the worst abuses can be eliminated, and workers may win space to organize.Yet in most cases codes of conduct are unilateral corporate promises with limited value. In the early nineties, as attacks on mistreatment of workers overseas began to build, most companies denied responsibility, claiming that contractors were responsible. Then they adopted codes of conduct for contractors, using their own staff as monitors. As revelations of abuses continued and internal monitoring proved to be a sham, they brought in outside monitors, who themselves often proved useless in detecting or guarding against abuses. The Gap -- subjected to a pre-Christmas attack in 1995 -- agreed to the first independent monitoring of a factory by local NGOs, one of a few complicated but largely positive experiences with such independent watchdogs. In one celebrated case a Human Rights Watch inspection of Phillips-Van Heusen shirt factories in Guatemala helped citizen and labor groups in the United States and Guatemala win the first union contract in Guatemala's export-oriented maquiladora plants.In 1996 the Clinton Administration organized the Apparel Industry Partnership, bringing together big-name manufacturers, unions and labor and human rights groups to develop a voluntary industry code of conduct and enforcement system [see Alan Howard, "Partners in Sweat," December 28, 1998]. In the summer of 1998, negotiations between UNITE and the corporations broke down. Several of the rights groups continued negotiating and announced an agreement in November 1998, establishing the Fair Labor Association (FLA), which would review how well companies that voluntarily join the association enforce its code. UNITE, the RWDSU (retail workers union) and the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility rejected the agreement and withdrew from the partnership, citing the lack of worker-rights protections, a clear living-wage standard and adequate enforcement mechanisms.While not all critics see the FLA as a dangerous fig leaf giving cover to companies, labor's withdrawal greatly undermined the association's already flimsy legitimacy. Its credibility took another hit when, shortly after the agreement was announced, Phillips-Van Heusen shut down its unionized factory in Guatemala, concentrating its work in lower-paid, nonunion shops. If the FLA had set more modest goals by first undertaking a few pilot monitoring tests, as some European branches of the international Clean Clothes Campaign are now doing and the student movement is proposing, it might not have become such a sorely divisive issue for the antisweatshop movement. But the labor movement and most of the antisweatshop movement now see the code of conduct as too weak, the monitoring too compromised and the corporate influence too great.At best, well-enforced codes of conduct may help insure that the better employers do not suffer so much from competition with the less scrupulous. An international group of corporations, unions and human rights groups, under the auspices of the Council on Economic Priorities, has developed a stronger code than the FLA's and a thorough monitoring system. Its audits will certify individual factories, not entire companies, but this could still be a promising venture if it works closely with labor rights activists.Nonetheless, such negotiated agreements should always be viewed as steps toward stronger government regulation and union power, not as alternatives. "People have to understand that codes are a relatively minor part of the solution," says Alan Howard, special assistant to UNITE president Jay Mazur. Some unionists fear that codes will lead to a voluntaristic, privatized labor relations system, with monitors supplanting unions, instead of a system combining national laws with core labor rights, ratified by the International Labor Organization and enforced through global economic institutions, including the World Trade Organization.Although shifts in the industry require a more global regulatory reach, the answer to sweatshops remains what it always has been: tough government enforcement of workers' rights and labor standards, and high levels of unionization. Indeed, from the thirties to the seventies, the US sweatshop was largely eliminated by government enforcement of the New Deal's Fair Labor Standards Act, growing unionization and union contracts that made manufacturers responsible for conditions at the workplaces of their "jobbers." As the textile and garment business, always highly mobile, went global, imports soared from 4 percent of the US apparel market in 1961 to more than 60 percent in 1997. Global trade deals accelerated the shift of production to poor countries: Apparel job loss in the United States in the four years after NAFTA was more than quadruple the rate of the preceding four years. Global competition forced down wages and cut unionization from half of garment workers to less than 10 percent. This has made a coordinated global response to sweatshops all the more critical -- but there is no global authority enforcing workers' rights. And with poor countries desperate for highly mobile foreign investment, governments typically turn a blind eye toward workers' rights (or do not even recognize the right to organize independently, as in China).Codes and monitoring have thus emerged as solutions. The best codes incorporate core ILO principles; the worst -- like the American Apparel Manufacturers Association code -- include guidelines for security forces, guard dogs and two-way mirrors, hardly a step forward. The FLA experience suggests the dangers of well-meaning groups, often unaccountable to a popular constituency, negotiating on behalf of workers or citizens. Pharis Harvey, respected as director of the International Labor Rights Fund even though its union backers left when he endorsed the FLA, acknowledges that popular pressure is needed. "I want a good, healthy body of critics outside the association saying, ÎYou guys claim to be doing something. Show me,'" he said. "It won't work without that body of informed critics."Yet critics of the FLA do not completely agree on strategy. Kernaghan argues that the movement should stay loose and unpredictable as it roots itself even more deeply in the mainstream of labor, religious, student and other sympathetic communities. "Having all these different fires going on is enormously effective," he says, "and to bring them together you could almost weaken the movement." There is a price to pay for the scattershot approach and lack of cohesion, of course. The movement often lurches from one laudable campaign or target to another without sufficient follow-through. "I'd like to see us pick one conquerable target company and really go after it until we get a serious concession," said Larry Weiss, coordinator of the Labor, Globalization and Human Rights Project of the Resource Center of the Americas. Public disclosure of the locations of contracting factories is now a key demand, but it emerged as a leading strategy only a year ago. Even as the movement continues to press for monitoring corporate conduct, there is little agreement on what might work, partly because there's so little experience. In any case, who could independently monitor hundreds of thousands of factories? There aren't enough human rights groups, and they might better spend their time in rights campaigns. Financial auditors who also advise corporations, like Ernst & Young or PriceWaterhouseCoopers, are tainted and unreliable. Could enough reliable private social auditors be trained? Why not turn the task over to an expanded ILO instead?The technical solutions are less important than building a movement that can grow and sustain itself for the long haul, expanding its demands and alliances. Students, for example, could demand that universities purchase no supplies -- including uniforms, sporting goods and medical supplies -- from sweatshops, and they could strengthen existing alliances with organizers of campus workers, including graduate students. None of the sweatshop solutions, even global guarantees of workers' rights, will be effective without a citizen and consumer movement giving support to workers and their unions and keeping pressure on corporations and politicians here and abroad.REQUIRED TAG: This article originally appeared in The Nation.
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