The crime of sweatshop labor

Do you think about where your clothes come from? If you are like most of us, probably not. I will openly admit that before this year the only factors I considered in buying my clothes were cost, appearance and comfort. However, we should consider the ways our clothes were produced in order to fully understand the impacts of our purchasing decisions. Whenever you purchase a product, you are implicitly supporting whichever practices that company uses to produce that product. If that company pays its workers poorly and forces them to work under unsafe conditions, you are implicitly supporting that through your money.

Workers in sweatshops often do not have enough money on which to live realistically. For example, in 1997 the National Labor Committee, in conjunction with 60 Minutes, sneaked a hidden camera into a sweatshop in the Dominican Republic that produced undergarments for Victoria’s Secret. They found that the women in the factory earned $31 a week. The cost of renting one room without plumbing for a week was $9.06. Drinking water for a week was $2.14. Transportation to and from work was $1.71 per week. Milk and day care for two children for the week was $10.71 and $7.11 respectively. A modest dinner for a small family was $5.36, almost the same as the wages for an entire day’s work.

Even those of us with out math skills can see that these wages are not enough for the female employees to support themselves and their children. Is it any wonder that with such inadequate wages, child labor is common in developing countries?

When I first read these statistics, my eyes drifted to a corner of my room where a Victoria’s Secret bra was hanging on a hook. The label on the bra said “Made in China,” which meant that it hadn’t been made in the sweatshop in the Dominican Republic. However, I knew that there was no guarantee that the bra had not been made in a sweatshop in China.

Anti-sweatshop activism, a form of consumer activism, has been gaining momentum around the country. Theoretically, when consumer activism creates a demand for a certain good, such as clothing produced under fair labor practices, corporations will eventually bow down to market demands and change their practices to meet them. The situation is more difficult in anti-sweatshop activism, because the global nature of the industry ensures that getting accurate information about labor conditions from companies that have hundreds of factories spread across the world is extremely difficult. College students have been at the forefront of this new movement. College students across the country are forming anti-sweatshop groups on their campuses to urge their schools to stop buying team uniforms and college apparel from sweatshops. Colleges are large enough purchasers of goods that they potentially have more influence than ordinary individual consumers do. Under the initiative of sweatshop activists, a new non-governmental regulatory group called the Worker’s Rights Coalition has been formed this year.

Colleges have been joining this group and demanding that the corporations that they do business with also cooperate with the group. The Worker’s Rights Coalition will demand that all the corporations it is inspecting submit a complete list of all their factories worldwide to them. Surprise inspections will be held to ensure that the working conditions in the factories really are acceptable. Key in the definition of acceptable will be whether or not the wages in the factory constitute a living wage that is enough to cover the basic needs of living.

Here inside the Purple Bubble, there is also a newly formed push for anti-sweatshop activism. A new student/faculty/staff committee has formed to look into the college’s responsibility in addressing sweatshop issues. They are researching which companies the College buys athletic uniforms from and what possible actions the College could take to ensure that it is not supporting exploitative working conditions. The committee will be holding a forum the first week of May to gain input from the Williams community on what we think the college should do about sweatshop issues.

Next Tuesday at 7 p.m., Chie Abad will be speaking in Griffin Room 6 about sweatshops in the island of Saipan. Abad is a former worker in a Saipan sweatshop that produced clothing for Gap. She will discuss her experiences there and her attempts to unionize the factory. The easiest and most tempting option is to decide that there is nothing that can be done about sweatshops and therefore refuse to act. Enacting change over sweatshop conditions will be a difficult battle, but it is not hopeless unless people decide that it is. Learn about sweatshops by coming to the talk by Abad. More importantly, come to the forum held by the sweatshop committee and help influence the college’s decision to take action.