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    women sewing in a sweatshop

    Working Girls

    Sweatshops never went away.

    By Maria Hengeveld

    July 26, 2019

    Available languages: Deutsch, español, 한국어, français

    • Teresa Serenith

      Wow, thank you for that thorough, thought provoking and heart breaking report. I will be sharing it on social media and be more mindful of where I buy. But is there more I can be doing ?? Any suggestions? Thank you again. Teresa

    • Leslie Gross

      We buy a lot of clothes. We buy them frequently. We want them cheap. Yes, these companies need to change, but more importantly, we need to change.

    Women’s empowerment sells. You-go-girl messages have been used to push everything from shoes to body wash to cars, and it certainly sells in the sports world. In February, Nike released its “Dream Crazier” commercial, featuring female athletes like Simone Biles, Serena Williams, and Megan Rapinoe, and an inspirational voiceover: “…a woman running a marathon was crazy. … A woman boxing was crazy. A woman dunking? Crazy. Coaching an NBA team. Crazy. A woman competing in a hijab, changing her sport, landing a double cork 1080, or winning twenty-three grand slams, having a baby, and then coming back for more? Crazy, crazy, crazy, crazy, and crazy.”

    Nike’s been at it for a while now. In fact, my interest in the brand was originally sparked several years ago when I learned about the “girl empowerment” programs that the Nike Foundation, the company’s philanthropic arm (now the Nike Community Impact Fund), was promoting in emerging economies like Uganda and Ethiopia. These girl-power programs had made Nike quite popular among women’s groups and development organizations. Was this the same Nike that in the mid-1990s had been attacked by feminists and labor activists for the widespread abuse in its overseas factories? What about the women making Nike sneakers and T-shirts today? How empowered did they feel? In 2016 those questions took me to Vietnam, where I learned that, contrary to Nike’s girl-power image, in reality its factories were still contradicting the freedom and empowerment its commercials celebrate.

    I interviewed Hao and three of her colleagues on a hot afternoon in January 2016. I met the workers with an interpreter outside the single room Hao shares with her husband and children, in an industrial area close to Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam’s largest city. We sat in a circle on the floor outside and talked about the women’s work at a shoe factory that supplies sneakers to Nike.

    Hao’s story was typical of the eighteen workers, employed at five different Nike suppliers, whom I interviewed that month. She was exhausted by long days, immense work pressure, daily humiliations when her work was deemed too slow or faulty, and the stress of trying to make ends meet on low wages. By the end of the month, Hao often had to borrow money to pay her bills. “I sell lottery tickets during my lunch break,” she said, to help pay off debts. This was a risky undertaking, however: “If my boss catches me selling them, he might fire me.” Hao had sent her five-year-old daughter to her family in northern Vietnam because she couldn’t afford to care for her.

    They weren’t allowed to leave after their shifts when deadlines were tight, even though they had children to pick up from school.

    The factory floor is the opposite of empowering. The women showed me wage stubs and factory rule books that revealed illegal wage penalties, excessive hours, and wages four times lower than what they needed to give their families a decent quality of life. Overtime was routine, they said, not voluntary. They weren’t allowed to leave after their shifts when deadlines were tight, even though they had children to pick up from school. Of the ten mothers with young children that I spoke with, six had sent at least one child away out of financial desperation and saw the child only once or twice a year. These women are caught in a Catch-22 of having their families torn apart in an effort to keep them together.

    When I confronted Nike with my findings and asked them to respond to the women’s grievances, they didn’t seem surprised or particularly concerned. “Transformation takes time,” they wrote me, suggesting that, while the jobs were not dignified or well-paid – or up to the standards of their “empowerment” campaigns – the labor standards in Vietnam’s garment sector would eventually evolve to those in the developed world.

    Nike is only one of many multinational brands and retailers, including Gap and H&M, that take part in a system designed to push down labor standards. Nike selected Vietnam, a country whose laws forbid independent labor rights groups and strikes, as its primary sourcing destination. The grievances and powerlessness of Hao and her colleagues are not an aberration but a calculated outcome of a system designed to repress workers’ struggle for dignified jobs. By prioritizing low production costs and doing business with countries with the weakest labor protections, brands like Nike, Zara, Gap, and H&M create the high-pressure, disempowering environment described by Hao and her colleagues.

    As the history of America’s own garment industry shows, improvements in labor conditions have never “eventually evolved.” Unions and strikes are vital. One of the most famous and effective strikes, the “Uprising of the Twenty Thousand,” was led by Ukrainian immigrant Clara Lemlich in New York City in November 1909. Work had become unbearable for tens of thousands of workers, many of them teenage girls, toiling in sweatshops on the Lower East Side. Wages were as low as four dollars per week, work weeks exceeded sixty-five hours, factories were dangerous and unsanitary, and sexual harassment was rampant. Union organizers like Lemlich knew that the only way to demand a fair share of the profits and force their bosses to improve factory conditions was to use their collective power as workers to shut the industry down.

    And that’s what they did: for nearly three months, between twenty and thirty thousand garment workers braved the freezing New York winter and walked the streets of Lower Manhattan to demand what they deserved. As the feminist labor historian Annelise Orleck describes in her study, Common Sense and a Little Fire, the bosses, backed by the city’s police, took all kinds of cruel and violent measures against the strikers. Seven hundred women were arrested during the strike, and city officials portrayed them as unruly, immoral, and ungrateful. Lemlich herself was arrested seventeen times and six of her ribs were broken by police clubs.

    But, backed by their union, wealthy allies, and sympathetic media coverage, the women persisted. Contrary to what male union leaders thought possible at its outset, the strike achieved many of its goals, including union recognition, a fifty-two-hour workweek, and wage increases. The strike’s success proved that collective action in the garment industry was both possible and effective, and set a wave of garment strikes in motion in other cities.

    The Uprising’s success played an important role in improving factory conditions in the industry. But its tragic failure played an important role as well. Several factory owners, including Max Blanck and Isaac Harris of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, refused the strikers’ demands to fix safety hazards. On March 25, 1911, a year after the conclusion of the Uprising, a fire erupted on the eighth floor of the building, and one hundred forty-six Triangle workers, many of whom had participated in the Uprising, burned or jumped to their deaths.

    The deaths of the Triangle fire and the wave of strikes triggered by the Uprising galvanized the labor movement and forced nationwide improvements in working conditions. As Annelise Orleck writes, Lemlich and her organizing colleagues “were at the center of a storm that by 1919 had brought half of all women garment workers into trade unions.” Later, much of the progressive labor legislation President Franklin D. Roosevelt adopted was created or inspired by female labor rights advocates who had witnessed, or lost friends to, the fire. Improved conditions were not produced by inevitable evolution, but by the blood and courage of New York’s garment workers.

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    women sewing in a sweatshop
    Laborers work at a garment factory in Bac Giang province, Vietnam, 2015.
    Photograph by Nguyen Huy Kham. Used with permission.

    Today, just as it did a century ago, the garment production industry favors girls and women for employment. As the stereotype goes, women’s “nimble fingers” are naturally equipped for fine assembly line work. More importantly, they are considered more docile and less likely to stir up trouble than men. As a factory personnel manager in Taiwan told the anthropologist Linda Gail Arrigo, “young male workers are too restless and impatient to do monotonous work with no career value. If displeased, they sabotage the machines and even threaten the foreman. But girls? At most, they cry a little.”

    How does this sexist understanding square with the militancy of Clara Lemlich and the tens of thousands who fought for their rights in the early twentieth century? It doesn’t: garment workers have always fought for their rights. The difference between 1909 and today is that, whereas then violence against workers happened in front of New York City’s shirtwaist-wearing middle and upper classes, today most collective actions by workers, and the methods used to crack down on them, happen largely out of consumers’ sight.

    The global subcontracting model creates essential distance between western brand managers placing orders and factory managers keeping labor costs as low as possible. The dirty work of union busting has been outsourced along with T-shirt side seams, and it has never been easier for brands to look the other way.

    Despite these obstacles, garment workers in Vietnam, Bangladesh, and elsewhere have taken to the streets to demand dignified work and fair wages. In Vietnam in 2008, around twenty thousand workers from subcontracting factories that supplied Nike went on strike for better wages and working conditions. Management fired at least seven women for instigating collective action. When an underground labor group urged Nike to help the women get re-hired by putting pressure on their subcontractors, Charles Brown, Nike’s then senior director of global corporate responsibility compliance, hid behind Vietnam’s restrictive regime. “It is important,” he wrote back, “for workers to understand the boundaries of their legal rights and the rights and obligations of the employer in Vietnam,” including, he pointed out, the right of employers to fire striking workers when they don’t report to work for five days. Brown makes the country’s lack of labor rights sound like a regrettable surprise. In reality, Nike had chosen Vietnam precisely because of workers’ lack of tools to empower themselves.

    The history of Nike’s supply chain and the outsourcing choices illustrate how the “race to the bottom” works under corporate globalization. One of Nike’s first outsourcing destinations in the 1970s was South Korea, a country then under military rule, which allowed workers few opportunities to organize. As described at the time by Barbara Ehrenreich and Annette Fuentes in Ms. Magazine and by Ruth Pearson and Diane Elson in the Feminist Review, women workers, many living in overcrowded rooms near the factories, faced extremely grim conditions. A sewing-machine operator, Min Chong Suk, wrote of sixteen-hour workdays, starvation wages, and health hazards: “When [the apprentices] shake the waste threads from the clothes, the whole room fills with dust, and it is hard to breathe. Since we’ve been working in such dusty air, there have been increasing numbers of people getting tuberculosis, bronchitis, and eye disease.” To Min Chong Suk, it seemed that “no one knows our blood dissolves into the threads and seams, with sighs and sorrow.”

    Attempts at collective action by Korean workers were violently squashed in at least one instance by “action squads” that, “armed with steel bars and buckets of human excrement,” broke into the women’s organizing office and “smashed the office equipment, and smeared the excrement over the women’s bodies and in their hair, eyes, and mouths.”

    When the women succeeded, winning modest wage increases and even helping to bring down the military government, Nike let them down. “In response to South Korean women workers’ newfound activist confidence,” Cynthia Enloe writes, “the sneaker company and its subcontractors began shutting down a number of their South Korean factories in the late 1980s and 1990s. … Having lost that special kind of workplace control that only an authoritarian government could offer,” Nike and other European and American sneaker executives moved on to Indonesia, China, and Thailand.

    Most collective actions by workers, and the methods used to crack down on them, happen largely out of consumers’ sight.

    By the early 1990s, “sweatshop exposés” of export factories in Indonesia, Vietnam, Thailand, Honduras, and other countries finally forced brands to confront the flip side of their outsourcing model: the risk of reputational damage. Consumers, it turned out, didn’t want to wear shoes or shirts made in sweatshops, and found the hands-off approach of the outsourcing model unconscionable. Activist groups, students, and consumers held the brands responsible.

    Nike initially denied responsibility. Why, they asked, should they be held responsible for the workplace practices of its Indonesian business partners? Nike, they argued, is a shoe company, not the United Nations. Besides, a spokesperson pointed out, “The wages may be small, but it’s better than having no job.” The alternative for these women, he suggested, would be “harvesting coconut meat in the tropical sun.” While consumer pressure has motivated brands such as Nike to implement factory oversight systems (which have been criticized as weak, ineffective, and secretive by unions and labor rights experts) the argument that “a bad job is better than no job” is still frequently invoked to justify the conditions under which products and profits are made.

    Nike is certainly not alone in this approach. In 2013, a Huffington Post reporter asked Biagio Chiarolanza, the CEO of the Italian fashion brand Benetton, about his company’s role in the Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh – an industrial accident that cost over 1134 garment workers their lives and that, like the Triangle factory fire in 1911, would have been entirely preventable. Chiarolanza told the journalist that Benetton’s subcontractors, not the company itself, were at fault. When viewed in isolation from the supply chain as a whole, this argument might be convincing to some. But when the suffering and exploitation at the bottom is understood as directly connected to the profits at the top, and as a problem of distribution, rather than an inevitable outcome of outsourcing, it becomes harder to justify. Just as the deadly Triangle fire was a preventable and unnecessary outcome of an asymmetric power relationship, the Rana Plaza disaster was the outcome of a global business system designed to put governments and businesses from the poorest countries in ruthless competition with each other for Western business.

    If we allow the excuse that “a bad job is better than no job,” we must accept the extreme power imbalances of modern fashion supply chains as natural and inevitable, rather than see them for what they are: a deliberately designed system of exploitation that should be radically transformed.

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    women sewing in a sweatshop

    The search for cheap labor is ongoing. Today, it is leading many brands to a country with no statutory minimum wage for private sector workers: Ethiopia. In 2017, I spent a few weeks in this East African country and, with the support of local research partners, gathered testimonies of over forty garment workers from four factories that supply H&M and PVH, the company that owns Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger.

    The argument that “a bad job is better than no job” is still invoked to justify the conditions under which products and profits are made.

    At H&M’s largest Ethiopian supplier, workers reported unpaid overtime of up to fifty-six hours per month. A twenty-three-year-old woman at this factory recounted that she frequently misses night school classes because her manager won’t let her go after her shift ends. When she went anyway, he fined her a full day’s wage. The pay stubs and records she and her colleagues provided revealed that they are only paid for a fraction of their overtime. While the average hourly wage of interviewed workers at the factories was eighteen cents, some made as little as twelve cents an hour when unpaid overtime was taken into account. Excessively long hours, sexual harassment, extreme work pressure, and a work climate so hot and dusty that workers frequently collapse at their workstations: the resemblance to the grievances of 1909 is striking. The only way the garment trade will make progress is for workers to find new ways of challenging and correcting the power imbalance that brands and retailers, with the support of political elites, have willfully escalated.

    The irony of the Nike Foundation’s “empowerment” philanthropy is that true empowerment is exactly what Nike refuses to get behind in its own operations. Its foundation’s work is not a generous investment in women’s rights, but a smart business investment to restore the company’s image. Putting money into their foundation and their communications department, after all, costs them much less than ensuring the women workers get paid a wage high enough to keep their families together. Philanthropic campaigns and “Corporate Social Responsibility” initiatives serve to fix the disjuncture between the company consumers want to buy from and the one they morally condemn.

    Yet it was collective empowerment, through unions, strikes, and the enforcement of labor laws, that improved factory conditions in America between 1910 and 1940. Today, brands don’t fear unions, because they have outsourced to countries where independent unions are either weak or nonexistent. What brands and retailers do fear is negative exposure – it’s proven to be one of the very few things that forces them to do the right thing.

    This is precisely why we, and the politicians who represent us on the global stage, should no longer look away. Instead, we should look for new strategies to correct the power imbalances responsible for the unnecessary exploitation and deadly accidents in the factories where our sneakers and T-shirts are made. That means using our power as voters and consumers to demand new kinds of trade deals – trade deals that require strong labor rights and living wages. As Clara Lemlich, tired of discussion over whether or not to strike, said: “I am a working girl. One of those who are on strike against intolerable conditions. I am tired of listening to speakers who talk in general terms. What we are here for is to decide whether we shall strike or shall not strike. I offer a resolution that a general strike be declared now.”

    Humane hours? Crazy. A living wage? Crazy. Freedom from harassment and humiliation? Crazy. Maternity leave? Crazy. Collective bargaining power and the right to strike? Crazy, crazy, crazy, crazy, and crazy.

    Contributed By MariaHengeveld Maria Hengeveld

    Maria Hengeveld is a writer and a PhD student at Cambridge University.

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