Sweat and Tears

By Houghteling, Charlotte | Harvard International Review, Fall 1999 | Go to article overview

Sweat and Tears


Houghteling, Charlotte, Harvard International Review


Abstract:

A significant rise in student activism on US college campuses against university retailers affiliated with sweatshops has threatened the US$2.5 billion university-apparel industry. Over 1000 students from 100 universities have joined United Students Against Sweatshops to insist that apparel manufacturers disclose the location of factories producing goods bearing the schools' insignia, including everything from hats and sweatshirts to lingerie and dog collars.

Text:

Sweat and Tears Student Activism and Sweatshops

A significant rise in student activism on US college campuses against university retailers affiliated with sweatshops has threatened the US$2.S billion university-apparel industry.

Over 1000 students from 100 universities have joined United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS) to insist that apparel manufacturers disclose the locations of factories producing goods bearing the schools' insignias, including everything from hats and sweatshirts to lingerie and dog collars. These demands coincide with those of a number of government and business associations seeking to eliminate the use of sweatshops in developing nations such as Indonesia and El Salvador. These factories play a major role in the production of the US$70 billion apparel industry. While students at Harvard University marched through Harvard Yard requesting a "living wage" for laborers producing university goods, their peers at Duke and Georgetown Universities and the University of Wisconsin at Madison occupied administrative offices until university officials agreed to comply with their demands.

Corporate representatives, such as those from Nike and Reebok, argue that wages are rising and conditions improving for sweatshop workers. However, these improvements are insufficient by the standards of the Council on Economic Priorities (CEP). The CEP's numerical values for a living wage vary between nations and regions. The calculation considers the local costs of basic foods needed for adequate nutrition as well as the typical number of household members and wage earners; it then determines the minimum salary necessary for a worker to live without outside subsistence. A private US firm, in an international inspection of sweatshops in 30 countries, found that 80 percent of the facilities observed did not meet these standards. In Indonesia, for example, where Nike and Reebok laud their recent wage increases in response to the economic downturn, sweatshop laborers now make US$0.20 an hour, while the CEPs calculated national living wage is seven cents higher,

Many apparel manufacturers insist on keeping factory locations concealed; they claim that if they were to identify their sources, competitors could move into the region and offer more competitive wages, thus undermining business. This concealment perpetuates mistreatment within the plants. The abuses that protesters focus on include compulsory unpaid overtime, lock-ins,and physical abuse.

A recent lawsuit that highlights the scope of these abuses took place in August 1999. Representatives of 50,000 sweatshop laborers from the Marianas Islands demanded US$1 billion from a number of corporations for, among other activities, creating a program of indentured servitude in which 10,000 Chinese were coaxed into moving to Saipan and other islands and then forced to work off their debts for the trip. The defendants-including Nordstrom, Gymboree, Cutter & Buck, and J. Crew-settled the case, paying US$1.25 million to monitor the factories and agreeing to allow Verite, a respected nonprofit organization, to regularly inspect their facilities. The settlement seemed to catalyze an initial movement toward improvement within the sweatshops: recently, Polo Ralph Lauren, Donna Karan International, and Chadwick's of Boston all pledged to begin independent monitoring of their factories. …

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