The battle for
worker's rights and a living wage is not new in America.
However, today's labor movement must deal with a new dimension
-- the globalization of the labor force. In the 1930s,
the most effective strategy against sweatshops was the
organized power of the work force. Between 1930 and 1933,
textile and apparel union membership rose from 40,000
members to over 300,000 members. By the 1960s, more than
1.2 million textile and apparel workers were unionized.
The nationalization of the textile and apparel labor union
enabled workers to successfully mobilize, strike, and
challenge management, eventually leading to the creation
of national labor standards. Today, the collective bargaining
power of the union is no longer effective. The government
continues to support policies that encourage corporations
to locate its manufacturing plants offshore. Multi-national
corporations scour the world for the lowest possible wage,
leaving hundreds of thousands of American workers without
employment and pitted against workers in third world nations,
where there are no labor unions, no tariffs, no health
and safety regulations, and where basic human rights are
ignored. With human rights violations ranging from rape
to execution, global standards must be enforced.
The key U.S. actors in the action against sweatshops
consist of both institutional and challenging organizations:
the National Labor Committee (NLC), a human rights advocacy
group dedicated to promoting and defending the rights
of workers headed by activist Charles Kernaghan; the Union
of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees (UNITE),
the United Students Against Sweatshops organization; and
various social justice and religious groups such as the
Interfaith Center for Corporate Responsibility, Peoples
Faith Network and Global Exchange; and to some extent
the U.S. Department of Labor.
The anti-sweatshop movement has been successful in beginning
to educate the American consumer on where and how their
garments are being made, and educating workers in free
trade zones around the world about their labor rights.
But, how can this movement affect needed change in international
policies? Over the last few years, the successful campaigns
of the anti-sweatshop movement have pressured the U.S.
government to take notice and implement certain legislation.
For example in 1995, President Clinton adopted the "Model
Business Principles", a code set to urge corporations
to take responsibility voluntarily for the labor standards
of their suppliers offshore, and the Department of Labor
introduced the "NO SWEAT" campaign, designed
to expose manufacturers not voluntarily taking steps to
enforce wage and hour regulations and monitor labor conditions
in their contracted factories. Additionally in August
of 1996, the Clinton administration established the "White
House Apparel Industry Partnership", a task force
designed to create a system of monitoring and minimum
standards that would assure consumers that the apparel
they buy is not made in sweatshops. All of these initiatives
have been a step in the right direction, but none hold
retailers or manufacturers accountable for their actions,
and none have resulted in legislation towards internationally
recognized and enforceable labor standards.
In November, 1998, the task force, without the support
of the AFL/CIO and the Interfaith Center for Corporate
Responsibility, created a system of monitoring and minimum
standards to assure consumers that the apparel they buy
is not made in sweatshops - the Fair Labor Association
(FLA). Despite inadequate standards and monitoring, companies
will be able to use their participation in the FLA as
a marketing tool. Once certified, these companies will
be able to sew a label into their products and state that
they were made under fair conditions--a label that will
fool consumers and will amount to false advertising.
Soon after implementation, the FLA began to solicit universities.
Why? Legitimacy and Funding. As more than a hundred schools
were signing on to the FLA, students across the country
began mobilizing support for an alternative system. At
several campuses, students organized sit-ins, held public
debates and demonstrations, brought sweatshop workers
from Latin America to speak on their campuses, and waged
campaigns to encourage their administrations to adopt
stronger codes of conduct and licensing agreements. As
a direct result of student activism, corporations like
Nike and Champion have begun disclosing the locations
of their factories.
Charles Kernaghan, executive director of the NLC, believes
that corporate disclosure and education will eventually
result in changes in national labor policy and trade agreements.
"Our targeted campaigns are working, but they are
not sufficient to impose major change at the national
and international level," states Kernaghan. The NLC's
"People's Right to Know" campaign asks corporations
to disclose the addresses of factories that retailers
use around the globe. "This is a public disclosure
campaign, not a boycott," Kernaghan explains. "Boycotts
are detrimental to the movement's efforts. We want to
keep the workers working, not create unemployment,"
Kernaghan states. Kernaghan believes that by educating
consumers, allowing them to shop with a conscience, pressure
will be placed on retailers to reveal the locations of
their worldwide factories and open them to independent
inspection teams by local human rights and religious leaders.
In response to Levi Strauss' chairman's comment about
the campaign, "American consumers value high quality,
style, and price and don't care too much where the garments
come from"; Kernaghan responds: "Nonsense. Companies
respond to pressure and social movements and only take
notice when the public eye is bearing down on them. Our
campaign banks on the public's conscience and its desire
to do the right thing." The NLC's agenda is to continue
to pressure these multi-national corporations using the
campaign and its human and labor rights affiliates to
educate all workers around the globe of their rights,
and eventually open a legal space for these workers to
empower themselves and to learn and better defend their
In concert with the NLC, the Union of Needletrades, Industrial
and Textile Employees (UNITE) has an agenda that focuses
on retailer responsibility and the increased enforcement
of labor laws. UNITE is currently lobbying Congress to
pass the Stop Sweatshops Act. This law would hold manufacturers
and retailers responsible for violations of labor standards
in the contracting shops that produce their work. Additionally,
UNITE is lobbying in Congress and in state capitols for
sufficient funds to enforce U.S. labor laws and protect
workers' safety and job security. And, at 150 universities
across the country, students are calling for their schools
to be "sweat free" and joining the demand for
full public disclosure of all factory names and addresses
where university goods are produced.
The movement hopes that these strategies will eventually
force the U.S government to enforce its national labor
laws, hold multi-national corporations responsible for
its global actions, and apply pressure on the International
Labor Organization and the World Trade Organization to
modify their multilateral trade agreements to include
a social clause where trade sanctions could be enforced
on governments who ignore basic labor and human rights.
The bottom line is that we need credible independent
monitors, joint liability for manufacturers and retailers,
and international standards that carry the force of the
law in order to rid the world of sweatshops.
College and the Movement
Apparel Research Initiative (CARI) in Indonesia
Comparative Look: FLA vs. WRC