Anti-Sweatshop Efforts Falter but UNITE Tries Again



I’ve got to confess that I haven’t been paying a lot of attention to the movement against overseas apparel sweatshops, so I wrongly had the impression that the movement was sort of making some progress.

That’s probably because the protest rallies, and informational picket lines at apparel stores by UNITE (Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees), and the campus sit-ins led by the United Students Against Sweatshops (and of course the unintentional publicity created by Kathie Lee Gifford) during the past few years have managed to gain some notice from the mainstream press, despite the media’s self-interest in its advertisersí’profitability.

Perhaps the news coverage wasn’t as extensive as the news about the maquiladoras along the U.S.-Mexican border, but still the uninformed might have learned that the worst kind of overseas apparel sweatshop abuses are flourishing. For example, legal wages per hour for apparel workers in some countries are starvation wages: Pakistan, 26 cents, Kenya, 30 cents, Indonesia, 34 cents. And that’s a just a small sample.

Further, those government authorities, vendors, wholesalers and retailers that tolerate miserly wages don’t shrink from the exploitation of child labor. And tragically, inhumane working conditions are common.

Apparel workers can and frequently are forced to work 60-70 hours or more a week, locked doors and blocked fire exits are routine, use of toilets is humiliatingly and strictly regulated, even first-aid may not be provided for workers who have no health coverage. Day-in and day-out there’s the over-riding necessity to produce and produce fasteróoften to the shouts and curses of overseers.

So it’s troubling to hear UNITE’S recently elected new president, Bruce Raynor, say that “despite years of public pressure against sweatshops, today’s global retailers are greedier than ever, and more workers around the world are in sweatshops to make their goods.”

Moreover, according to another champion of the anti-sweatshop movement, things have been going badly for quite a while. “For some years, we have observed the lack of real progress on the sweatshop issue, and this is a big concern to us,” said the Rev. David Dyson, a Brooklyn pastor who is co-founder of the Progressive Religious Partnership, a group of 10,000 congregations around the country (The New York Times, Aug. 8, 2001).

Imagine that! Despite years of hard work by UNITE-the key U.S. and Canadian garment workers union, a AFL-CIO affiliate-by some 200 chapters of the United Students Against Sweatshops, by numerous faith based groups, and by who knows who else, Nike, the Gap and the rest of that sorry crowd who ring up more than $300 billion in yearly sales are still doing business as usual. Which means they’re ripping off some 29 million workers as usual in the apparel, textile, and footwear industries in 150 countries.

UNITE’s leaders say they know what they have been doing wrong all these years and they say that they have undertaken to turn things around. They say that their previous efforts were “piecemeal and inadequately financed.” But now UNITE has organized a new international coalition of unions and presumably has found “adequate financing.”

The union says that all large clothing companies today do business with overseas sweatshops. So the core of the “new plan” is to target far more intensely the retail stores that support the sweatshops. The union and its coalition partners say that “[together] we will confront apparel retailers here in the United States and overseas, publicly holding them responsible for the conditions under which the goods they sell are produced. We will show the industry that there is no place on the globe that it can hide from justice.”

“UNITE organized the new coalition,” said The Times, “after facing criticism for doing too little to fight sweatshops, and brought foreign unions into the coalition partly to show that it was not undertaking a campaign to keep jobs in the Unite States. ‘This isn’t about protectionism,’ Mr. Raynor said. ‘It is about improving worldwide standards.'”

Of course, overseas workers must hope it’s not about protectionism, which simply means “Buy American” products, not foreign products, all the while trying to sell to any buyer, anywhere in the world.

And hopefully, the “worldwide standards” UNITE advocates don’t mean that the labor cost differential of overseas labor has to end before American unions can offer real solidarity to the most desperate of the world’s workers.

If not, real solidarity could start right now with the officialdom of U.S.-organized labor mobilizing its members and allies to demand that the government prohibit U.S. arms sales to overseas regimes that for generations have used those arms to suppress indigenous grassroots movements seeking to end poverty, chronic disease, illiteracy, fear, and tyranny.

That kind of solidarity would usher in a new day for U.S. unions that have resisted sweatshops in other, less effective ways, since long before the still not forgotten horrendous fire of 1911 in New York that snuffed out the lives of 145 young seamstresses at the Triangle Shirtwaist Co. It is not forgotten, perhaps, partly because sweatshop labor is still a grim reality, not just overseas and not just in the garment industry.

Last year, a study of sweatshop conditions in many industries in Chicago and its suburbs found that 22 percent of U.S. citizens, 37 percent of legal permanent residents, and 70 percent of undocumented workers surveyed labored in sweatshops of all kinds.

And in Hamlet, N.C., 25 workers at the nonunion Imperial Foods poultry processing plant died in a 1991 blaze. The plant’s fire-exit doors were illegally locked and blocked, leaving the workers no escape. (A federal definition of a sweatshop includes being paid less than the minimum wage, unpaid wages, no breaks, no bathroom, no ventilation, and locked exits.)

Federal and state safety and health inspectors failed to inspect the 11-year-old poultry plant even once before the fire. Still when inspectors do show up and find egregious violations of the law, the bosses aren’t likely to get burnt up over the typical penalties.

Case in point: In 1997, Hudson Foods, a Missouri poultry processor with a history of fires was found by OSHA to have committed willful violations involving blocking doors and restricting fire and emergency exits. OSHA “proposed” that the firm pay a $70,000 fine for the blocked exits.

Despite OSHA inspections, labor and student protests, and all the rest, U.S. sweatshops haven’t yet joined the dinosaurs. Isn’t that simply because the “sweating of labor,” like so much else that’s exploitative of workers, is an integral feature of the dog-eat-dog, profit-driven set-up we call capitalism?

Socialists should back any actions by unions that aim to end sweatshops, or even curb them. But socialists also have an obligation to point out that a serious fight to end sweatshops, once and for all, means a fight to end capitalism, the mother of all sweatshops.


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