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Sweating over sweatshops

An Indian man dyes cotton in Tirupur. The challenge for campaigners is how to end exploitation at every stage of the garment supply chain.

JOERG BOETHLING / Still Pictures / www.stillpictures.com

When confronted with the reality that so many of our garments are produced under abysmal working conditions, the first question on many consumers’ lips is: ‘Where can I buy clothes that weren’t made in sweatshops?’

The question is far trickier than it might at first appear. While undoubtedly reflecting an admirable desire among shoppers to be part of the solution to a vexing issue, it comes with problems of its own – and is at the root of a major divide between activists. Many ‘fair trade’ entrepreneurs want to answer consumers by providing a list of alternative, ethically produced products. Yet long-time anti-sweatshop campaigners not only feel sceptical about whether clothing clean enough to deserve the ’no sweat‘ label actually exists, they also wonder whether shopping for the right brand can be enough to create change.

‘I tell people that’s the wrong question to ask me,’ says Martin Hearson, Campaign Co-ordinator for the British anti-sweatshop organization Labour Behind the Label. ‘Given that the problems are structural and apply across the board, we need to engage the industry as a whole. The right question for people to ask is: “How can I persuade companies to do more to improve the conditions of workers on the ground?” It’s not just about the particular pair of trousers that you buy.’

‘If we look only at voting with your dollars as the solution, it’s a pretty easy answer for people – one that can actually result in more passivity,’ adds Bob Jeffcott of the Toronto-based Maquila Solidarity Network. ‘If I can buy clothing that has some sort of label on it that says it’s made under decent conditions, then I can feel good about myself and I don’t have to do anything else. Well, we’re hoping that people will go beyond shopping.’

Targeting the corporate giants

In the past decade the anti-sweatshop movement has been successful at raising awareness about exploitative working conditions in the garment industry. In the process, it has uncovered some uncomfortable truths about our global economy. Early on, in the 1990s, the movement captivated consumers with high-profile campaigns exposing the abuse of workers, usually in the Global South, who produced goods for corporations like Nike, Levi’s and Gap. In truth, major brands were targeted not because their practices were dramatically worse than their off-brand competitors (who often used the very same suppliers). Rather, activists ran campaigns against corporate giants because the companies carefully guarded their brand images and were therefore susceptible to media exposés.

To a great extent, the strategy worked: major players in the apparel industry, who for years denied exploitative conditions, have since been compelled to concede that problems exist and to join initiatives designed to improve wages and working conditions. As activist campaigns to improve factory monitoring and support worker organizing have evolved, however, some misconceptions have lingered amongst the public.

One misconception is that the sweatshop problem can be avoided by not buying from a few major brands. As Hearson notes: ‘It’s not about the big bad guys any more. Now it’s more about moving the entire industry. The difficulties are structural.’ Instead of trying to achieve a level of purity in their personal purchases, he argues that consumers need to pressure companies they patronize and large buyers like universities to make more concerted efforts to raise standards – for example, by participating in initiatives such as the Ethical Trading Initiative in Britain and the Workers’ Rights Consortium in the US. As one important aspect of this, corporations must make a commitment to help employees improve substandard factories, rather than ‘cutting and running’ when abuses are reported. ‘We have to recognize that a company that is doing well on the issue is not necessarily sweatshop-free,’ Hearson says. ‘It is one that is acknowledging the problem and engaging with worker groups and other stakeholders. If we want improvements across the industry, it’s not going to happen overnight.’

Traditionally, the anti-sweatshop movement and the fair trade movement have tended to operate in distinct realms. Sweatshop activists worked to mobilize collective action in their battle against the brands. Meanwhile, fair traders focused on building direct ties between consumers – most notably in Europe – and producers of coffee and bananas in the Majority World. Their goal was to give consumers the ability to ‘vote’ in favour of a fair price for small farmers.

In recent years, the two movements have moved into closer quarters as an increasing number of initiatives have attempted to provide ‘sweat-free’ clothing options. Unfortunately the complexities of the garment industry have ensured that the results have not been uniformly praiseworthy.

Behind the sweat-free label

Few would doubt that ‘sweat-free’ brands like the British-based Ethical Threads or the Netherlands’ Kuyichi have good intentions in promoting ethical clothing. But given that credible independent monitoring of factories has proven notoriously difficult for mainstream companies, anti-sweatshop watchdogs charge that the alternative labels are failing to prove that conditions in their factories are up to snuff. ‘In most cases,’ states a report by the Maquila Solidarity Network, ‘these initiatives lack clear and credible labour standards, certification criteria, or monitoring and verification programmes’ that advocates have demanded of the larger brands.

Consumers who think they are choosing an ethically untainted product might actually be buying clothing sewn by child labour

In the United States, ‘sweatshop free’ manufacturer American Apparel has drawn fire from a wide range of critics – ranging from activists who denounce as wantonly sexist its ads featuring store clerks in provocative poses, to unions who argue that the company’s claim of ‘pioneering industry standards of social responsibility’ is based more on marketing hype than respect for workers’ rights. The company produces its clothes in a Los Angeles factory, pays well-above-minimum wages, and offers benefits to employees. Yet workers charge that their efforts to form a union in 2003 were met with fierce resistance. Stephen Wishart, a representative of the national garment workers’ union, writes that: ‘Through intimidation, interrogation and threats of closing the facility, American Apparel created an atmosphere of fear that quickly chilled the workers’ attempts to organize.’

When more mainstream retailers seek to offer ‘sweat-free’ product lines on their racks alongside other clothing, further problems can arise. In Britain, the Fairtrade Foundation recently offered companies an opportunity to sell apparel made of cotton certified as ‘Fairtrade.’ Retailers like Marks & Spencer and Topshop responded enthusiastically, taking the opportunity to reap positive publicity from their participation in the initiative.

The problem, anti-sweatshop groups point out, is that the Fairtrade mark promises only that the cotton in the garments is produced in an equitable manner. Even if the Fairtrade Foundation effectively monitors conditions for cotton farmers – in itself a difficult task – there is no guarantee that workers are not being exploited at other steps in the production process. Consumers who think they are choosing an ethically untainted product might actually be buying clothing sewn by child labour or finished in a dangerous, overheated factory. Indeed, at the time Topshop announced its move to sell products made with Fairtrade cotton, Labour Behind the Label was investigating charges of union-busting at a Cambodian factory making clothes for the retailer.

No easy answers

‘Let’s be clear: people who look to buy ethical products are doing a good thing,’ Hearson explains. ‘The problem is, I think that the fair trade promoters recognize that there’s a market out there – that there’s a gap – and that they can be very keen to fill that gap. But we might not be ready to fill it yet. The systems of ethical sourcing and production aren’t there yet. They will take a long time to develop.’ ‘I think the fair trade option is one that certainly should be explored,’ Jeffcott says. ‘The key is that worker organizations and anti-sweatshop groups must be involved if there’s going to be a process of determining what constitutes fair trade – especially in a complicated sector like apparel.

‘Fair trade can create some important niche markets, and those might eventually become models for the big brands and big retailers. But, until then, the anti-sweatshop movement will need to keep the pressure on to change practices in the industry as a whole. That means encouraging people to look at the hard facts, not settle for easy answers.’

*Mark Engler*, a writer based in New York City, is an analyst with _Foreign Policy In Focus_.
He can be reached via

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