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 accountable.

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.

Corporate Accountability

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 to

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 accountability.

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 <>, 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 will persist.


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,

New Global Economy