Finding an Anti-Sweatshop Strategy That Works

Finding an Anti-Sweatshop Strategy That Works

That nearly twenty years of anti-sweatshop activism has come to naught is suggested by the cost breakdown of a $37.99 University of Connecticut hoodie that appeared in the Hartford Courant a couple of years ago: the workers received a mere 18 cents, while the university received $2.28 in licensing fees. (Mexican factory: profit, 70 cents; overhead, $2.12; material, $5.50—importer [Champion]: overhead, $5.10; profit, $1.75—retailer [UCONN Co-Op]: overhead, $14.49; profit, $4.50). Use of the logo was 80 cents, and the royalty to the National Collegiate Athletic Association was 57 cents. The workers’ share could hardly have been lower when the movement began.

Given the worldwide financial crisis, it is a safe bet that fighting sweatshop abuses here and abroad will not be a key policy undertaking for Barack Obama and his team. But this does not rule out a wide-ranging set of initiatives that would significantly empower workers. Tweaking our foreign assistance priorities, revising “democracy promotion,” and undertaking diplomacy from a community organizer’s perspective—these changes in U.S. policy would at least begin an assault on global sweatshop practices. And they are especially important as an antidote to the solipsism of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), wherein corporate “self-regulation” teams are rebranded as “activists” by lazy and compliant media. The new administration needs to connect with real labor activists, in Asia and Central America especially, and allow them to speak for themselves.

But first we need to collect information on sweatshop practices abroad and make it available to activists, who often can’t collect it themselves. Twenty years ago, I worked in the small Jakarta office of the Asian-American Free Labor Institute (AFL-CIO). When my boss visited Jakarta, I described to him the radical inadequacy of the local minimum wage of 87 cents per day. By the Indonesian government’s admission, this provided only 68 percent of the “minimum physical needs” for a single adult. He suggested that I develop a project to monitor compliance with this inadequate minimum: were the workers even receiving 87 cents? USAID (United States Agency for International Development) had recently made available funds for human rights grants; we applied and received something on the order of $20,000. The discovery of 44 percent noncompliance in 250 Jakarta-area workplaces was shocking and—to our great surprise and delight—avidly reported in the (mostly Suharto-controlled) newspapers. As a result of the publicity, workers began an unprecedented wave of wildcat strikes that resulted in much-improved compliance numbers.

The backstory is interesting. When the grant was discussed at a twice-monthly meeting where the Jakarta USAID Mission reported to U.S. Embassy staff, I was told that a buzz went around the room: “We’re helping who to do what?” Not surprisingly, AID officials received a similar ...

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