Fighting Against Sweatshop Abuses

When did your anti-sweatshop work begin?

We began our labor rights activities in Latin America in the early 1990’s in El Salvador and Honduras. One of our first projects was to help a local human rights organization in Honduras, called the Committee for the Defense of Human Rights, to do a survey of 1,000 maquila workers, who were interviewed by college students volunteering their time. We found that 13 percent were children as young as 12, and they were sometimes forced to work all night long. Another 27 percent had either been physically beaten or had witnessed someone being beaten. Together with CODEH and FITH, a federation of unions, we challenged several of these factories on what the owners were doing, and as a result, changes were made. But these are only baby steps in a very long process.


In El Salvador we did a campaign centered on Gap, the big clothing company. There was a factory called Mandarin that made clothing predominantly for Gap. On our visit to this factory we found the same kinds of exploitative conditions—lots of workers in their early teens doing overtime, and workers permitted to use bathrooms only once in the morning and once in the afternoon. There was also poor ventilation and no clean drinking water. When we publicized the conditions, Gap tried to pull out of El Salvador in search of cheap labor elsewhere. We said "No, stay in the factory but clean it up, because the worst thing you could do would be to leave hundreds of workers out of a job." As a result of that campaign, the first independent monitoring project anywhere in the world was set up through the Jesuit university there. The locks were taken off the bathrooms, clean water became available, and workers who were fired for trying to start a union were reinstated.

How do you do your investigative research in developing countries?

In order to gain entrance to the factories, we’ve sometimes posed as investors, with hidden cameras and microphones. That’s what we did in Honduras. We’ve used the same approach in China. The only way to get in is to pose as an investor or an academic. Any worker in China seen discussing working conditions with a group like ours would be fired. At least in Honduras, we could let it be known that workers could meet with us in a church on a Sunday. They’d bring in their pay stubs and labels from the clothes they made. We work with local human rights representatives and form a strategy jointly, so that it’s not a matter of North dictating to South. In mainland China, though, where the repression is so complete, there is no place to meet and no independent organizations to work with. There are, however, courageous independent unions and labor and religious nongovernmental organizations in Hong Kong, and they are going forward in the face of great risk.

Why is independent monitoring important?

The multinational companies would like to have monitoring of conditions done by a big auditing firm like PricewaterhouseCoopers, but that’s like expecting the fox to guard the hen house. Their attitude is, "We know the industry, so we’ll report on ourselves." But we come down strongly on the side of having independent local, religious and human rights organizations doing the monitoring. It can’t be big auditing firms, but rather groups that workers know and trust. If the worker is a young woman—and most are, between 16 and 25, with little formal education—she is not going to tell the truth about factory conditions to someone visiting the factory from PricewaterhouseCoopers. The workers know from the past that if they say anything truthful, they run the risk of being fired, and they desperately need these jobs.

What keeps the workers from organizing unions?

Almost every country in the world says that workers have the right to organize, but in reality they don’t. Except for the Mandarin factory, there’s not a single union in any of the over 200 factories in El Salvador. Each attempt to organize there has been met with mass firings and blacklistings. It comes down to empowering the workers, giving them some protection over their lives. You can win the battle over locks on the bathrooms and clean drinking water fairly easily, but the real struggle is over the workers’ right to organize and thereby to empower themselves. How else can they hope for a living wage—wages that can be as low as 12.5 cents an hour in China, 13 cents in Bangladesh and 43 cents an hour in Honduras?

So these are the four major components of the code of conduct: the right to organize, full disclosure by the companies of the names and addresses of the factories that make their products, inspection of the factories by independent monitors, decent wages. All of them are needed in order to respect human rights. Until the struggle over these issues is won, sweatshop conditions won’t be ended.

Have students played a large role in the anti-sweatshop movement?

Definitely. Besides the students who have helped us with research on investigative trips, others on campuses have started active chapters of United Students Against Sweatshops. I give a lot of talks to promote this kind of response. In 1999 alone I spoke at 50 colleges and universities. For some of the talks, two workers from El Salvador accompanied me to describe to the students their firsthand experiences of factory conditions in their own countries. The workers and the students are about the same age, and the students could easily see the contrast between their lives and those of the workers. They’d say to themselves, "When I graduate after four years, my life will be in front of me with all kinds of opportunities, and I’m full of hopes—but what about these women in factories that assemble garments that bear my university’s name, working for a pittance?" They quickly understand. We went to the University of California at Santa Barbara, for example, which is not known as an activist school. And yet 500 students showed up for our presentation. Now they’re one of the colleges that have an anti-sweatshop chapter.

Do the students press their administrators about sweatshops?

They do. One of the recent fights, in fact, has been at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. Students began noticing in the bookstore that the garments sold with the university’s name had labels showing they had been made in various poor countries, like Bangladesh, Mexico and Indonesia. They went to the administration and said, "We don’t want our university’s name on garments made in sweatshops—how do you know they weren’t?" The administrators merely told the students they’d set up a study group and that they’d get back to them in a few months. The students said thank you, walked out, and came back and sat down in the president’s office. They wanted a more immediate response, and that changed everything. Georgetown students have already won full public disclosure from Nike, which released to them the names and addresses of factories that make products for the university. Duke was the first university where students staged a sit-in; then came Georgetown last year, followed by the Universities of Wisconsin, Michigan and Arizona. They are the core institutions that led the way to establishing more and more chapters of USAS, and they did it by the sit-ins. They’re agreeing to support a stronger emphasis on the code of conduct, with task forces studying what form of monitoring there should be, putting pressure on the College Licensing Corporation—an outside corporation that purchases clothing items for many of the universities. Obviously, Georgetown itself doesn’t go out and purchase T-shirts from Central America.

What about Wal-Mart and Kathie Lee Gifford?

Wal-Mart is the biggest retailer in the world, and it owns both the label and the name Kathie Lee. The Kathie Lee Gifford episode began back in 1996, when she initially denied to us on her television program that any of the clothing with her name was made in sweatshops, and she threatened to sue us. The media picked up on the situation in a way that inadvertently helped to educate Americans about sweatshops and child labor. If she weren’t a celebrity with her own talk show on television, and if the media hadn’t jumped all over her involvement in the issue, the anti-sweatshop movement would not have advanced as far as it has today. So, albeit unwillingly, she played a large role in waking up the country. For our part, all we did was present the facts, and because of the media coverage, we were creaming them.

After a certain point, she stopped talking in public about the allegations concerning how her clothing was made, and Wal-Mart hired a big public relations firm to represent her. I got a call from them, asking for a meeting with their representatives and Kathie Lee Gifford herself. What then happened is something that I’ve never described in print. We brought up from Honduras Wendy Diaz, a teenager working in a factory that made some of the apparel with the Kathie Lee name. Wendy was 13 years old when she first started making Kathie Lee clothing, and 15 when she came up here. The firm asked where we wanted to meet, and I said in a church, which is where we often meet with company officials.

At the meeting, Kathie Lee said to Wendy, "Tell me about your life," which she did: what it’s like to live in a one-room hovel with 11 others, earning only 31 cents an hour, going to bed hungry because there wasn’t enough money for food; what it’s like when the factory foreman throws a garment in your face and curses you, how humiliated you feel when you need to go to the bathroom and they won’t let you, and what it’s like to come out of work at 9 p.m. in the dark in a neighborhood where there’s no public transportation home. She said that she and the other kids run home together whistling and singing so they won’t be raped. When Wendy finished speaking, Kathie Lee Gifford apologized to her. The outcome of the meeting was that Ms. Gifford signed an agreement saying she would never again tolerate sweatshops; that workers around the world sewing her clothing—89 percent of which is produced off-shore—would be paid a living wage; and that she would open factories where her apparel was made to independent inspection by local respected religious and human rights organizations. None of this has been fulfilled. It appears that Wal-Mart would not allow it.

The real issue was never a personal attack on her, but an effort to uncover the conditions under which the garments with her name were being made. Kathie Lee Gifford gave a face to Wal-Mart, which otherwise is for most people just a huge anonymous corporation. It’s the same with Disney, which is involved with sweatshops in Haiti that make clothes for them: We use Mickey Mouse to put a face on Disney. We did a video called "Mickey Mouse Goes to Haiti." The Disney people went nuts.

Have religious groups helped your work?

The biggest nightmare for corporations comes when religious people—clergy, nuns, parishioners, congregations and synagogues—start asking serious questions about sweatshop conditions that the corporation can’t answer. One of the things that infuriated Disney, for instance, is that a congregation of sisters in California made it part of the renewal of their vows that they would each write a letter to Michael Eisner, the head of Disney. Again, the Disney people hated it. Nuns are our most potent secret weapon. No group of people I’ve ever met are so dedicated and so persistent. During the campaigns we’ve done, we’ve also found out that young people are another group the corporations don’t like to deal with. When students and religious people come to them and say, "We’re interested in where your clothing is made and under what conditions. Is it true about the starvation wages and the mistreatment in the factories?" the corporations can’t deal with them, partly because they can’t claim that the students and religious people represent for-profit special-interest groups. Their whole public relations machinery collapses. What we are struggling for now is a larger coalition of religious people, students and labor organizations to work together.

What about sweatshops in the United States?

One of the main problems here is that there are too few labor inspectors for wage and hour violations. At the federal level there are fewer than 1,000, and if you include those at the state level, there are only about 1,500 for the whole country to oversee 6.5 million work sites. In other words, as courageous as some local inspectors are, there are too few to make an impact on sweatshop violations. On the rare occasions when charges are brought, the penalties are minor—usually just paying back wages that had been withheld. And what penalties there are, are slow to be implemented. Part of the problem is that our heavily business-influenced Congress is not the kind of Congress that is friendly to workers’ rights, so the number of inspectors has actually declined. The previous Secretary of Labor, Robert Reich, estimated that half of the roughly 22,000 apparel operations in the United States were sweatshops that violated wage and labor laws.

One of the things that transnational companies are trying to do is to pit American workers against poor workers in developing countries, in a contest over which workers will accept the lowest wages with the most miserable working conditions. In the last year two years, half a million manufacturing jobs in the United States have been lost because companies relocated their production offshore—to sites where they can pay pennies an hour, and where they are exempt from all taxes and oversight by local governments. It is this race to the bottom in the global economy that has led to the shameful resurgence of sweatshops in the United States.

Do you support boycotts?

Except in the case of countries where massive oppression takes place, such as Burma, we don’t advocate boycotts, even of companies like Wal-Mart. First, we don’t want to take jobs from workers in the developing world who need them. What we are asking is that the companies do the right thing: respect human and worker rights and end the terrible abuses. Second, 66 percent of Americans make under $40,000 a year; if they have kids, they have to shop at places like Wal-Mart. We don’t feel we can crash into people’s lives and tell them where to shop. But what we can tell them is that on the moral level we should hold the companies accountable and push them to stop exploiting women and children, stop paying starvation wages and stop preventing unions from organizing, and to start allowing independent monitors in factories where their products are made.

So we try to craft our campaigns in a way that is understandable by the average person. That’s why students are such a big part of the movement – not just college students, but high school students too, through the Students’ Committee Against Labor Exploitation. The year 200 is to be the year of high school students’ involvement in the anti-sweatshop movement. For the past several years in December, when the Christmas shopping season is at its height, we organize an evening Vigil to End Child Labor and Sweatshop Abuses as part of what we call Holidays of Conscience. In New York City, this starts with a rally in front of Niketown on 57th street and goes from there to the Disney store a couple of blocks away. Every December it gets bigger. Over 3,000 people showed up in 1999, and a majority of them were high school kids. The vigil takes place in at least 30 other cities across the country too, from Albany to Milwaukee to San Francisco. So we feel hopeful about the growing consciousness among Americans about what sweatshops are really like. And we are encouraged by the successes that have already been achieved by working together with local unions and nongovernmental organizations in El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua and elsewhere. We look forward to the further changes that can be made through the combined efforts of people like the students and those connected with religious communities and labor groups.

Editor’s Note – The National Labor Committee is located at 275 7th Ave., New York, NY 10001. Tel: 212-242-3002. Web site:   

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