Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

The Human Lives Behind the Labels: The Global Sweatshop, Nike, and the Race to the Bottom

Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

The Human Lives Behind the Labels: The Global Sweatshop, Nike, and the Race to the Bottom

Article excerpt

The importance of making visible the invisible, of looking behind the masks presented by everyday consumer goods, became a central theme in Mr. Bigelow's first-time effort to teach about the "global sweatshop" and child labor in poor countries. We invited the Nike Corporation to respond to this article, but it failed to do so.

I began the lesson with a beat-up soccer ball. The ball sat balanced in a plastic container on a stool in the middle of the circle of student desks. "I'd like you to write a description of this soccer ball," I told my high school global studies class. "Feel free to get up and look at it. There is no right or wrong. Just describe the ball however you'd like."

Looks of puzzlement and annoyance greeted me. "It's just a soccer ball," someone said. The students must have wondered what this had to do with global studies. "I'm not asking for an essay" I said, "just a paragraph or two."

As I had anticipated, their accounts were straightforward - accurate if uninspired. Few students accepted the offer to examine the ball up close. A soccer ball is a soccer ball is a soccer ball. They sat and wrote. Afterward, a few of them read their descriptions aloud. Brian's is typical:

The ball is a sphere which has white hexagons and black pentagons. The black pentagons contain red stars, sloppily outlined in silver.... One of the hexagons contains a green rabbit wearing a soccer uniform with "Euro 88" written parallel to the rabbit's body. This hexagon seems to be cracking. Another hexagon has the number 32 in green standing for the number of patches that the ball contains.

But something was missing. There was a deeper social reality associated with this ball - a reality that advertising and the consumption-oriented rhythms of U.S. daily life discouraged these students from considering. "Made in Pakistan" was stenciled in small print on the ball, but very few students thought that fact significant enough to include in their descriptions. However, these three tiny words offered the most important clue to the human lives hidden in "just a soccer ball" - a clue to the invisible Pakistanis whose hands had crafted the ball sitting in the middle of the classroom.

I distributed and read aloud the Bertolt Brecht poem "A Worker Reads History," included in Rethinking Our Classrooms (Rethinking Schools, 1994, p. 91), as a tool to pry behind the soccer-ball-as-thing:

Who built the seven gates of Thebes? The books are filled with names of kings. Was it kings who hauled the craggy blocks of stone? . . . In the evening when the Chinese wall was finished Where did the masons go? Imperial Rome Is full of arcs of triumph. Who reared them up? . . . Young Alexander conquered India. He alone? Caesar beat the Gauls. Was there not even a cook in his army? . . . Each page a victory. At whose expense the victory ball? Every ten years a great man. Who paid the piper?

"Keeping Brecht's questions in mind," I said after reading the poem, "I want you to re-see this soccer ball. If you like, you can write from the point of view of the ball, you can ask the ball questions, but I want you to look at it deeply. What did we miss the first time around? It's not 'just a soccer ball.'" With not much more than these words for guidance - although the students did have some familiarity with working conditions in poor countries they drew a line beneath their original descriptions and began again.

Versions one and two were like night and day. With Brecht's prompting, Pakistan as the country of origin became more important. Tim wrote in part: "Who built this soccer ball? The ball answers with Pakistan. There are no real names, just labels. Where did the real people go after it was made?" Nicole also posed questions: "If this ball could talk, what kinds of things would it be able to tell you? It would tell you about the lives of the people who made it in Pakistan. ... But if it could talk, would you listen? …

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