Anti-Sweatshop Movement - Background

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 rights.

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.

-Boston College and the Movement
-Collegiate Apparel Research Initiative (CARI) in Indonesia
-A Comparative Look: FLA vs. WRC




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