Since the 1970s, there has been a global resurgence of sweatshop working conditions in numerous industries, from apparel to high-tech electronics to agriculture. In their attempts to improve their working conditions, however, these workers are often not struggling alone, but have a range of allies, from local labor rights and human rights organizations to social justice groups in the US and Europe.
One of the groups in the US that has been particularly successful in supporting sweatshop workers is United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS), a national network of students at colleges and universities. They have helped workers in factories around the world unionize and improve their working conditions.
What may be most surprising about USAS’ strategy to many observers is that USAS does not normally use what might think is the most obvious strategy against apparel companies using sweatshop labor—the boycott. Why? Because the workers they seek to help oppose such boycotts.
In a recent article, I focus on USAS’ commitment to acting in solidarity with sweatshop workers—that is, their commitment to forming global coalitions that include the workers they want to help. USAS both empowers those workers through independent labor unions and prioritizes the workers’ own needs and goals in developing their strategy. This has proved important not only for ethical reasons, but for strategic ones, USAS’ avoidance of boycotts being one of the most obvious examples.
The causes of sweatshops
A sweatshop is a workplace with numerous labor rights violations, such as pay below a living wage, widespread health and safety hazards, pervasive sexual harassment of workers by supervisors, and hostility to workers empowering themselves by organizing independent, democratic labor unions. The majority of workers in sweatshops tend to be young women, who employers stereotype as both more dexterous and more docile. Attempts by workers to organize unions and improve their working conditions are usually met by repression, ranging from being fired and blacklisted so they can’t find work elsewhere to violent police repression to, in some countries with long histories of political and anti-labor violence, assassinations and attacks by death squads.
To understand something of USAS’ strategy, it is necessary to understand something of the organization of the global apparel industry. The major apparel firms like Nike and Reebok generally do not own the factories where their goods are produced. Instead, they focus on designing and marketing their apparel—these companies’ most important asset is generally their brand image. They contract out—or outsource—the physical production of the goods to other, smaller companies, with factories located throughout the developing world. These contractors are pitted in a bidding war against each other, each pledging to produce the goods for less than their rivals.
This creates tremendous pressure on them to cut costs as much as possible—cost-cutting that is usually done on the backs of their workers. Importantly, despite outsourcing the physical production of apparel, the big apparel companies still retain the power in these contracting relationships, defining the conditions under which their contractors will produce the goods.
United students against sweatshop’s strategy
As part of their marketing strategy, these big apparel companies have formed business relationships with colleges and universities across the US, in which the school grants them a license to produce goods with the school’s name and logo on it. The college gets a 7-8% cut of the profits, while the companies gain a semi-captive audience for their marketing in the form of college students. Although this college apparel makes up only a small percentage of the overall apparel market, the big apparel companies value these licenses as a chance to create lifelong brand loyalty among current students.
USAS has sought to leverage these licensing agreements to put pressure on the apparel industry to improve working conditions and allow workers to join independent, democratic labor unions. Through a series of protest campaigns beginning in 1997, they pushed college and university administrations across the US, first to adopt pro-labor rights codes of conduct for their licensees, then to join the Worker Rights Consortium, an independent monitoring organization, to ensure that these codes are actually being honored.
United students against sweatshop’s practice of solidarity
As part of its philosophy and practice of solidarity with sweatshop workers, USAS has strong ties with sweatshop workers. When planning campaigns, they actively involve representatives of the workers who are meant to benefit from the campaign in their planning.
In USAS’ first major campaign starting in January 2001 to support workers trying to unionize at Kukdong, a South Korean-owned factory in Puebla, Mexico that produced for Nike and Reebok, USAS member Evelyn Zepeda traveled to Mexico and spent the duration of the campaign living with Marcela Muñoz, one of the leaders of the Kukdong workers. Zepeda did this in order to better coordinate communication and strategy between USAS and the Kukdong workers.
The Kukdong campaign was, after nine months, successful— Kukdong’s management sat down and began engaging in good faith collective bargaining with the workers. Now operating under the name Mexmode, the company reached an agreement with the workers’ union and gave the workers a substantial raise as well as putting in place new measures to protect them from harassment by managers.
The significance of USAS’ ties to workers can also be seen in the fact that USAS rarely uses boycotts against companies caught red-handed using sweatshop labor. USAS does this because the workers they seek to help generally oppose boycotts, fearing these will put them out of work instead of improving their working conditions. (USAS has conducted a handful of boycotts, but these have all been in cases where the workers had already been laid off en masse and had nothing left to lose.)
This issue, however, is not necessarily obvious and USAS only learned of it because of their close ties with groups representing sweatshop workers. USAS’ use of college codes of conducts is meant to be an alternative to boycotts, in that USAS leans heavily on the threat of a suspension of licenses, with an actual suspension being a last resort—and something that is reversed as soon as the companies in question address the problem.USAS has this sort of relationship with the workers they seek to support, one where they seek to form close ties with them and support those workers’ priorities, because of an underlying philosophy of solidarity. USAS members believe that to be effective in abolishing sweatshops, it is not enough to rely on conscientious consumers, whose focus may eventually move on to other issues.
Instead, workers themselves must be empowered through independent, democratic labor unions. And to empower workers in the long run, they must be empowered now in the movements that seek to help them, with activists in developed countries working closely with and taking directions from them. Only through partnership with the workers themselves can they design campaigns and long-term strategies where workers’ own needs and aspirations take center stage.
Matthew S. Williams, “Global Solidarity, Global Worker Empowerment, and Global Strategy in the Anti-Sweatshop Movement,” Labor Studies Journal, 2020. For a free, pre-publication version of the article, click here.
Image: Duke University Archives via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)