Throughout history, the student movement has been at the heart of progressive change.
In 1960, the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee was established in the United States, which operated as the student wing of the civil rights movement. Waves of sit-ins, disruption and occupations erupted across the country as students, black and white, fought segregation, institutionalised racism and the disenfranchisement of African Americans. When marches spread throughout the USA, buses packed with students joined them from campuses far and wide.
As Apartheid continued unabated in South Africa, students in Europe and elsewhere began to form solidarity networks, staging protests and demonstrations, ultimately fighting for institutions and individuals to cut their ties with Barclays bank, a major investor in the country. Students’ Unions refused to accept cheque or card payments from Barclays, as the campaign went on. As leading South African anti-Apartheid activist Desmond Tutu has described, the student movement ‘played a pioneering role in advocating equality in South Africa’.
History has recounted these two instances well. We are taught about them in schools, and they are widely known and understood in the public consciousness. But it is important to remember that these are not isolated cases, not unique moments where otherwise apathetic students woke up and decided to groggily shake off that hangover and take to the streets. Rather, the student movement has a long and proud history of standing up against injustice, acting in solidarity with those who suffer oppression and fighting for a better world.
Many of the revolutions against dictatorship in Eastern Europe from 1989, the fight to de-legitimise US military action in Vietnam in the 1960s and 70s, the protests of Tienanmen Square, the Arab Spring, the anti-globalisation movement – the list goes on. In each of these critical moments of social progress, of political change, the student movement, particularly when allied with the labour movement, played a crucial role.
Today is no different. Across the UK, student feminists are redefining how we conceive of gender and oppression, anti-racist activists on campuses are restructuring our understanding of colonialism and climate campaigners are pushing for a clean energy future through the Fossil Free movement.
It is in this context of student struggle that People & Planet’s Sweatshop Free campaign is situated. For almost 10 years, students in the UK have been working with their counterparts in the US – United Students Against Sweatshops – to build a movement capable of taking on the powerful global forces that allow sweatshops and modern slavery to exist.
Initially focussed on the garment industry and now on electronics, Sweatshop Free is part of a movement of students, workers and citizens across the world who have come together to stamp out worker rights abuses, empower workers to defend, protect and extend their rights and hold the multinational companies who are complicit in the process to account.
Whether it be workers at Samsung in South Korea who have lost their lives due to exposure to toxic chemicals without adequate safety equipment, in a factory in the Philippines who were sacked the day after forming a Union, or in Foxconn factories in China who have committed suicide due to workplace rights violations, the conditions facing the people who make our computers and mobile phones are bleak.
Local legislation across electronics manufacturing countries offers little in the way of workplace protection for factory labourers. Factory bosses are free to enforce long hours without breaks, keep workers on highly casualised contracts, hold pay at levels well below a living wage, exploit migrants, enforce little to no health and safety standards, all while clamping down on attempts to organise unions which could begin to alleviate this. Workers pay the price for our electronics and the major IT brands – Apple, Dell, HP and others, as well as their suppliers, reap the profit.
Scenes from student actions against modern slavery across Britain and Ireland.
In spite of this, workers, their families, civil society organisations and trade unions are resisting and struggling for the rights of workers in sweatshops. Families of workers in Samsung factories who have died from chemical exposure are fighting for compensation in South Korea, and are starting to see results. Redundant Union workers in the Philippines are campaigning for their reinstatement and recognition of their Union against intimidation from C&F. Mexican Labour Rights organisation CEREAL is coordinating workshops on how workers can access their rights and on gender issues in the factories.
And students in the UK and Ireland are standing with them. On 7 October, students from Southampton to Trinity College Dublin and from East Anglia to Sheffield took part in a day of action coinciding with the International Trade Union Confederation’s World Day for Decent Work. They ran stalls, dropped banners and organised solidarity sweatshop shifts. Hundreds took action on Twitter, calling out companies like LG, Panasonic and Samsung for their violations of worker rights and pushing for their Universities to be part of the solution, rather than the problem.
Student activists have been working to push universities to use their significant purchasing power and influence to ensure basic human rights are guaranteed in their supply chains, and holding IT brands to account through public campaigning when abuses come to light. Since its launch, nine universities in the UK have joined Electronics Watch, an independent labour monitoring organisation which supports public sector bodies to identify the location of factories they are sourcing from, write human rights into their IT contracts and directly monitor working conditions through a worker-led process.
One in four computers in Europe are bought by the public sector and many of these are by major institutions like universities. By working to lobby the institutions they study at to use their purchasing power to advocate and fight for ethics in a global industry, students are able to utilise what leverage they have and offer solidarity to those on the front line of exploitation.
The student movement and the international labour movement are coalescing around the issue of sweatshops. United they are building the framework in which factory exploitation can become a thing of the past, where union rights are respected and decent pay and conditions will become the norm rather than an aberration.