Our “Ain’t I a Woman” campaign has been launched amidst a great deal of anti-sweatshop activism. For the most part, unfortunately, sweatshops are framed as a problem of “the other” : far-away workers in Third World countries, immigrant garment workers in this country hidden away behind barbed wires and locked gates.
An upsurge of activity has been directed at helping these workers: the U.S. Labor Department launched a “No Sweat” campaign to encourage manufacturers to sign on to “voluntary compliance” with labor laws. Students are demanding that their schools contract only with companies that agree to a “code of conduct” – which typically prohibits forced labor, child labor and violations of labor laws – and to “public disclosure” of where and under what conditions their goods are made. Advocacy groups are organizing consumer boycotts of companies exploiting workers abroad, chasing companies like Disney from Haiti to China and promoting the union label.
A new form of imperialism has emerged, where U.S. consumers are depicted as the key agents of change and the ones who know whatís best for those sweatshop workers who are suffering. Power is seen to reside in your ability to buy things, as a consumer, rather than in your ability to make things or make things run as a worker.
This focus on sweatshops overseas actually helps to protect sweatshops in the U.S., diverting attention from the expanding sweatshop system here and driving work from abroad to domestic sweatshops.
Voluntary compliance and monitoring measures are also naive. “No Sweat” and Codes of Conducts are based on the premise that corporations are well intentioned. How effective can these measures be if they are asking corporations to voluntarily contradict the very goal of corporations: to make a profit? Moreover, even if independent monitors investigate factories, workers will not tell the truth about sweatshop conditions if they are not organized to face threats of harassment, firing and blacklisting.
For example, workers from two of the largest sweatshops in Brooklyn, N.Y., were forced to work as long as 137 hours a week producing Street Beat Sportswear for retailers like Sears. Several were fired after asking for a day off. Workers were owed almost $300,000 in unpaid minimum wage and overtime pay and damages. Street Beat had three years earlier signed two compliance agreements with the Department of Labor.