From Guilt to Solidarity

From Guilt to Solidarity

Sweatshops and Political Responsibility

For nearly two years we have been living in a crisis mode, with our government suspending due process and spending our tax dollars on war and security instead of health care and environmental protection. The ongoing sense of emergency diverts political discussion and problem solving resources from the more banal harms that were on the public radar screen before we switched into crisis mode and that continue to fester-the lack of affordable housing, violence against women, declining water supplies, or the awful labor conditions in which many workers around the world sweat to produce clothes, shoes, toys, and other everyday goods.

Barely three years ago, a student protest movement swept hundreds of campuses in the United States demanding that university administrations do something about sweatshops. The students called on university administrations to take responsibility for the conditions under which clothing sold in their bookstores and worn by their athletic teams are produced, often by young women, in export processing zones in Asia and Latin America. Other labor and social justice activists leafleted at major retailers, educating consumers and criticizing executive indifference. These activities achieved significant successes in creating better monitoring organizations, for example, and forcing corporate manufacturer’s to acknowledge what goes on in factories to which they have subcontracted much of their production. Public debate about sweatshops overseas led to the discovery of sweatshops closer to home-in major American cities.

While there have been some reforms, the basic problem of horrendous labor conditions in a globalized clothing industry, as well as in other industries, remains. Many stalwart activists continue to organize their fellow students and their fellow union or church members, to support union organizing among the most exploited and to mount court action to hold companies liable for labor rights violations. Since the heyday of the campus antisweatshop activity several important books have appeared. In mBehind the Label, Edna Bonacich and Richard Appelbaum describe the structural underpinnings of sweatshops in Los Angeles and show their connection to others in Asia. Ellen Israel Rosen provides a history of the political economy of the U.S. clothing industry as it has been globalized in her book, Making Sweatshops.

The antisweatshop movement has been a consumer and citizens movement as well as a movement of the most affected workers and the labor organizations supporting them. Students on hunger strikes protested university administrations as well as corporate leaders. Leaflets distributed on the street not only criticize big corporate retailers, but also exhort consumers entering stores to pay attention to the conditions of workers in factories far away producing the products they buy, and to join the movement to put pressure on the powerful institutions that can put pressure on the...