Bringing Down Niketown: Consumers Can Help, but Only Unions and Labor Laws Will End Sweatshops

By Moberg, David | The Nation, June 7, 1999 | Go to article overview

Bringing Down Niketown: Consumers Can Help, but Only Unions and Labor Laws Will End Sweatshops


Moberg, David, The Nation


Maybe it was the shock provoked by reports in 1995 that seventy-two immigrant Thai workers were held captive in a barbed-wire compound in El Monte, California, making brand-name garments for seventeen hours a day at about a dollar an hour. Or the TV tears from talk-show personality Kathie Lee Gifford when investigators revealed that 13-to- 15-year-old Honduran girls were working fifteen-hour days making clothes under her label for Wal-Mart-with tags pledging that part of the profits would go to help children. These were not the first public warning signs that the clothes, shoes, toys and electronic products Americans buy are increasingly made under appalling conditions- extremely long work hours, physical or sexual abuse on the job, a pittance for pay (often 25 cents an hour or less) and sometimes with child or forced labor. But 1995 proved to be a turning point for a steadily growing campaign against global sweatshops that has exploded in the United States and is increasingly linked to campaigns in Europe and parts of Asia.

Since then, argues Charles Kernaghan of the National Labor Committee, "We have had more brilliant success than anyone could have dreamed." Kernaghan's NLC grew out of progressive union opposition to Reagan's Central America policies in the eighties and has made many of the dramatic public exposes, including the Kathie Lee hypocrisy. "We're now at the beginning of a national movement," he says. Fewer than a dozen small labor rights groups and UNITE, the garment and textile union, have helped to inspire protests by church groups, local unions, politicians and students, as television and print stories spread the word. "The antisweatshop and labor rights movement is out of control," says Kernaghan. "There's this wild creativity of different organizations. The companies can't deal with it."

No company wants to become the next Nike, which-despite its elaborate public relations response-has been dogged for most of the decade by well-documented charges that its closely controlled contractors pay subminimum wages, prefer countries with regimes that suppress labor organizing, expose workers to hazardous conditions, demand long working hours and even physically abuse employees at Nike's Southeast Asian factories. Other campaigns have erupted as well against companies like the Gap, Starbucks, Disney, Reebok, Phillips-Van Heusen and Wal-Mart, which cultivate a hip or wholesome image but dreadfully abuse their workers-most often employed through contractors. In an address to the American Apparel Manufacturers Association, the incoming chairman, James Jacobsen, warned fellow business executives, according to Women's Wear Daily, that "the ongoing controversy about overseas sweatshops was causing anxiety on Wall Street," leaving investors "skittish" about industry prospects.

Yet when Kernaghan talks about a national movement that has made a virtue out of disarray, he means more than the high-profile PR campaigns against the Nike swoosh and Wal-Mart's phony promises. The sweatshop issue breaks out, sometimes unpredictably, on many other fronts: shareholder battles, legislative debates, international regulations, lawsuits, purchasing guidelines, the creation of corporate codes of conduct and the monitoring of workplaces. Religious institutions and union-influenced pension funds, for example, now regularly offer stockholder resolutions demanding action against labor rights abuses. In January US unions and labor rights groups filed a multimillion-dollar lawsuit against several dozen big retailers and manufacturers on a wide range of labor-law and business-fraud violations, including involuntary servitude and selling as "Made in the USA" garments produced under sweatshop conditions in the Northern Mariana Islands in the Pacific. UNITE is pushing state and federal legislation to make retailers jointly liable for sweatshop violations by their contractors. Dozens of municipalities and school districts (private and parochial) have adopted purchasing policies to avoid goods made under sweatshop conditions. …

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