Combating Global Sweatshops
Coalition of Sweatshop Watch Members Demand Justice
by Nikki Fortunato Bas
from RESIST newsletter July / August 1998
A sweatshop is broadly defined as a workplace where workers
are subject to extreme exploitation, including the absence of
a living wage or benefits, poor working conditions and arbitrary
discipline. The current trends of economic globalization, free
trade and deregulation have brought on a resurgence of sweatshops
in low-wage industries, particularly in the garment industry.
NAFTA has paved the way for the garment industry to jump the southern
border, devastating the Texas garment industry and leaving many
workers without alternatives. Meanwhile, workers in other states
fear losing their jobs as more and more shops move overseas where
big-name brands pay starvation wages in countries like China,
Indonesia, Haiti, and the Dominican Republic.
Sweatshop Watch is a coalition of labor, community, civil
rights, immigrant rights and women's organizations committed to
eliminating the exploitation that occurs in sweatshops. We believe
that human and civil rights are being violated in sweatshops.
We believe that workers should be earning a living wage in a safe
and decent working environment. We believe that those who benefit
the most from the exploitation of sweatshop workers must be held
California is the country's largest garment-producing state
with 160,000 garment workers. These workers are predominantly
immigrant women from China, Mexico, Vietnam, El Salvador and other
Asian and Latin American countries. They typically toil 6 days
a week, 10- 12 hours a day in front of their machines, often without
minimum wage or overtime pay. In fact, in May the Labor Department
released the results of a survey of the Los Angeles garment industry,
revealing that over 60% of surveyed shops violate wage and hour
laws. This lack of minimum wage and overtime pay means that garment
workers have to work excessive hours to make ends meet. Many turn
their homes into sewing factories, taking work home, involving
their children in work, and sewing late into the night.
In addition, many garment workers labor in dangerous conditions.
In the first government assessment of health and safety hazards
in Southern California's garment industry, 75% of sewing shops
were found to violate safety and health laws. The survey, released
in May, found blocked exits, exposed electrical parts that could
start a fire or cause an electrocution, and a lack of safety guards
on sewing and cutting equipment to prevent workers from having
their fingers cut off. In every case, the hazards were judged
serious enough that an accident could lead to a "substantial
probability of death or serious physical harm." In California's
other industries, the percentage of companies with serious safety
hazards is well below 50%.
Given the failure of federal and state labor laws to make
workplaces safe, workers, advocates and activists are combating
sweatshop abuses in a variety of ways.
Today's garment industry can be described as a pyramid where
big-name retailers and brand-name manufacturers contract with
sewing shops, who in turn hire garment workers to make the finished
product. Retailers and manufacturers at the top of the pyramid
dictate how much workers earn in wages by controlling the contract
price given to the contractor. With these prices declining each
year by as much as 25%, contractors are forced to "sweat"
a profit from garment workers by working them long hours at low
wages. The $100 sale price of a garment is typically divided up
as $50 to the retailer, $35 to the manufacturer, $10 to the contractor,
and $5 to the seamstress. Currently, if a worker wants to file
a wage claim with the labor commissioner, she can only hold the
contractor, her direct employer, responsible. Yet, manufacturers
and retailers have already received their orders and have profited
from the sweat of that worker.
Many of Sweatshop Watch's members have been successful in
raising issues of corporate accountability.
* In 1995, Sweatshop Watch and the Korean Immigrant Workers
Advocates launched the Retailer Accountability Campaign with Thai
and Latino garment workers against retailers who received and
sold clothes sewn at the notorious El Monte slave sweatshop. Through
letter-writing to retailers and public demonstrations at Robinson's-May
and Macy's, we were able to help collect back wages for the El
Monte garment workers. And in October 1997, Sweatshop Watch co-founder
Julie Su won an historic legal victory when five major companies,
including Mervyn's and Montgomery Ward, were ordered to pay more
than $2 million to the El Monte workers. So despite the subcontracting
system, workers can fight back and win just compensation from
the giant companies that profit from their labor.
* The Asian Immigrant Women Advocates (AIWA) in Oakland, California
galvanized support from the labor movement, universities, high
schools, women's and community groups to walk picket lines, bringing
four apparel companies to the table with workers. In 1995, AIWA
helped win a settlement for workers who sewed Jessica McClintock
dresses for a contractor who left them with bad checks. In 1996,
AIWA won bilingual toll-free hotlines from Esprit, Byer California
and Fritzi California for garment workers wishing to report complaints.
* Since the layoff of 1,150 workers in San Antonio by Levi's
in 1990, Fuerza Unida has been campaigning for corporate accountability
(see page 10). Levi's claimed it had to stay competitive and moved
production to Costa Rica where workers made in a day what San
Antonio workers made in a half-hour. The layoff hit the mostly
Mexican American seamstresses hard. Many received less than 24
hours notice and little retraining assistance. Many were also
left with permanent workplace injuries. Fuerza Unida has sustained
its campaign for just compensation from Levi's and is also running
a sewing cooperative. In November 1997, Levi's laid of 6,400 workers
in four states, but this time offered a much better severance
package, having learned its lesson from San Antonio. Fuerza Unida
is calling on supporters to take this opportunity to ask Levi's
to open new negotiations with Fuerza Unida on behalf of the laid-off
San Antonio workers and provide an equivalent severance package.
Worker Rights Across Race & Borders
Sweatshop Watch members, including the Asian Pacific American
Legal Center and the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of
Los Angeles, are coming together to fill a void in providing information
garment workers in Los Angeles. Organizations and community
members do outreach for bi-monthly workers' rights workshops by
leafleting in the garment district, churches and schools, and
by running public service announcements in ethnic and community
media. The workshops start with a skit performed by members from
the garment workers union UNITE, who outline basic worker rights
and the importance of keeping a time sheet.
Sweatshop Watch members held a presentation on the structure
of the garment industry. They explained to workers what their
connection is to retailers and consumers and the importance of
keeping labels of the clothes they sew so they can demand corporate
Sweatshop Watch member Common Threads showed an exhibit on
the history of struggle in the garment industry. The exhibit went
from European immigrants winning an 8-hour day to current organizing
in immigrant communities. This helps build worker solidarity among
different ethnic groups, and also opens the door for workers to
do their own organizing. Many workers hesitate to speak out, fearing
deportation or job loss, so there's also a presentation on your
rights in the instance of an INS raid, and an opportunity to talk
one-on-one with a volunteer lawyer about individual cases.
Using the power of the dollar
Sweatshop Watch is building a base of individual members who
can use their influence as consumers to pressure companies to
respect workers rights. Consumers have the power to impact the
bottom-lines of industry giants. They have worked in solidarity
with garment workers in a Gap factory in El Salvador to win an
independent monitoring project. Consumers have also supported
Guatemalan workers in winning the first collective bargaining
agreement in the maquiladora sector from Phillips-Van Heusen.
In addition to actions, Sweatshop Watch offers public education
through our quarterly newsletter, our web site <www.sweatshopwatch.org>,
and a traveling educational photo exhibit about garment workers
titled, "Faces Behind the Labels." If you are in the
Washington, DC area, you can visit the Smithsonian Institution's
controversial sweatshop exhibit "Between a Rock and a Hard
Place: A History of American Sweatshops from the 1820s to Present,"
which includes a section on the El Monte sweatshop and features
Sweatshop Watch co-founder Julie Su as one of six industry leaders,
alongside government and company representatives.
With growing public concern about sweatshops, there is also
a new movement to implement "no sweat" public purchasing
policies prohibiting cities from buying sweatshop-made goods.
Sweatshop Watch and the garment workers union UNITE are currently
working on creating a model purchasing policy in San Francisco.
Among students, there is also a growing movement for labor codes
of conduct in licensing agreements of sweatshirts, caps and other
gear with school logos. However, the challenge of these purchasing
policies and codes of conduct is to include a commitment to paying
workers a living wage. Unless workers are able to meet their basic
needs and save for the future by working a decent workweek, sweatshops
Nikki Fortunato Bas is Program Coordinator at Sweatshop Watch.
Sweatshop Watch received a grant from Resist this June. For more
information, contact Sweatshop Watch, 310 Eighth Street, Suite
309, Oakland CA 94607; www.sweatshopwatch. org.
from RESIST newsletter (A Call to Resist Illegitimate Authority)
July / August 1998
(RESIST 259 Elm St., Suite 201, Somerville, MA 02144, www.resistinc.org)