Sweatshops & Globalization
The only thing worse than being exploited by a capitalist is not being exploited by a capitalist.
- Joan Robinson
Activists have to learn how to use globalization to their advantage. They have to learn how to compel companies to behave better by mobilizing global consumers through the Internet. I call this the 'network solution for human rights,' and it's the future of social advocacy. It is bottom-up regulation, or side-by-side regulation - not top-down regulation. You empower the bottom, instead of waiting for the top, by shaping a coalition that produces better governance without global government.
- Thomas Friedman
The last few years have witnessed the tremendous growth of a vibrant anti-sweatshop movement. Primarily founded and based in developed countries, a small list of the anti-sweatshop NGOs and activist organizations comprising the nucleus of this movement includes United Students Against Sweatshops, the National Labor Committee, Human Rights Watch, Sweatshop Watch, Global Exchange, the Maquila Solidarity Network, Feminists Against Sweatshops, and the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights. These organizations have been vigorously attacking companies that allegedly profit from sweatshop labor.
The anti-sweatshop movement has been instrumental in raising awareness about sweatshops and workers rights. It was an anti-sweatshop NGO that exposed the now infamous connection of Kathie Lee Gifford's clothing line with sweatshops in Honduras in 1996. Other NGOs have been similarly active in exposing alleged sweatshop connections with such companies as Nike, Apple, IBM, and the Gap. All of these NGOs have utilized a creative battery of consciousness-raising tactics involving pithy anti-sweatshop slogans, defaced corporate logos, and media campaigns.
However, the anti-sweatshop movement has done much more than simply raise consciousness. It has done a lot to identify labor rights as fundamental human rights. In addition to lobbying the public at large about the importance of labor rights, anti-sweatshop NGOs have been lobbying organizations such as the International Labor Organization (ILO) to eliminate sweatshops around the world. The aspiration to make labor rights equivalent to human rights has started to become a reality through the ILO's adoption of the following conventions on labor rights: the elimination of forced and compulsory labor, the abolition of child labor, the elimination of discrimination in employment and education, and freedom of association and collective bargaining.
It is important to define the terms 'sweatshop' and 'globalization'. The word 'sweatshop' has been in existence since the latter half of the nineteenth century. Webster's provides the following definition of a 'sweatshop', "A shop or factory in which workers are employed for long hours at low wages and under unhealthy conditions." Although this definition possesses a negative connotation, it does not necessarily follow that it should be jettisoned. Even 'supporters' of sweatshops use the term 'sweatshops' to explain their view that unpleasant labor conditions are a necessary element of an evolutionary economic process that will eventually eliminate sweatshop labor.
However, to understand truly the phenomenon of sweatshops in this article, it is essential to place the term within the broader context of globalization. Economists Dean Baker, Gerald Epstein, and Robert Pollin have written at length about the economic aspects of globalization. They speak of globalization as the "ubiquitous buzzword" that has invaded public discourse with the perception that the global economy is undergoing a fundamental transformation. Regarding these perceptions, the authors mention that
[i]t is widely believed, first of all, that the extent of economic interactions between people in different countries is simply growing, at an ever-accelerating rate: that there is increasingly more trade, more foreign exchange transactions, more foreign investment, and more people migrating. But in addition to the increase in international economic interactions, it is also widely held that something more fundamental is occurring: that the quantitative increase in interactions is producing a qualitative change in the way that nation-states operate within any given country's economy. In particular, most discussions of globalization hold that the power of nation-states to influence economic activity is eroding as economies become more integrated, while the power of private businesses and market forces is correspondingly rising.
Following these illustrative comments, a tentative definition for economic globalization would be 'the perception of a substantial increase in international trade, foreign exchange, investment, and migration flows leading to the greater integration of national economies, the erosion of state sovereignty, and the concomitant rise of the power of private actors.'
Combining the definitions of 'sweatshops' and 'globalization' together yields a new meaning revealing the dual impact of globalization on sweatshop labor. If globalization (i.e. increased trade, investment, and migration flows) has led to an increase in what many consider sweatshop labor, it has also created opportunities for private actors, like NGOs, to oppose sweatshop labor. Paradoxically, it is this contradictory nature of globalization that makes the growth of sweatshops and the elimination of sweatshops simultaneously possible.
There are groups who believe that sweatshops are an unpleasant, but necessary stage of economic development. Since these groups base many of their ideas regarding sweatshops in terms of the reigning neo-classical economic paradigm, they may be referred to as establishmentarians. Establishmentarians are not opposed to anti-sweatshop NGOs per se, but are opposed to the more radical NGOs that are very critical of the dominant economic paradigm and are opposed to what has been termed "corporate globalization". Thomas Friedman, a pro-globalizer and reforming establishmentarian has this to say about distinguishing between anti-sweatshop activists:
[w]hom to root for: [t]here are many. . . activists. . .who understand that globalization has its upsides and downsides, and they have come not to destroy this system but to improve it-by agitating for the World Bank to be more sensitive to the environment in its building projects, by urging rich countries to write off the debts of the poorest countries, and by urging the IMF to be more open to alternative, possibly less harsh remedies for rescuing countries in financial distress. All worthy issues.
[w]hom to root against: [r]oot against the economic quacks peddling conspiracy theories about globalization; the anti-free-trade extremists, such as Ralph Nader's group, Public Citizen; the protectionist trade unions; and the anarchists. These groups deserve to be called by their real name:"The Coalition to Keep the World's Poor People Poor."
Accordingly, a real distinction must be made between those NGOs that are advocating smaller changes in the global economy to eliminate sweatshop labor, and those NGOs advocating more substantial changes. The difference between these two groups is heavily related to opposing views on political economy. This is the main area where establishmentarians part company with their anti-establishmentarian counterparts.
A recent article in The Economist states the position of establishmentarians concerning political economy and sweatshops. Briefly, the article admits that there are indeed more sweatshops in the developing world with globalization, but argues that this creates long-term efficiency gains for workers and consumers alike. In traditional neo-classical fashion, establishmentarians hold that consumers will purchase the cheaper products from sweatshop establishments and that productivity and wages will increase among sweatshop workers. Over time, increasing wages will lead to more substantial economic and demographic shifts in developing market countries that will allow for increases in country living standards and will "[g]ive governments more to spend on welfare, education and other public services." Accordingly the (largely) unaided invisible hand of the economy will eventually do away with sweatshops through an allegedly natural economic process.
Anti-establishmentarians are not as sanguine as establishmentarians with regards to the possibilities of eliminating sweatshop labor through the self-interested efficiency maximizing of neoclassical economics. Economist Robin Hahnel explains the anti-establishmentarian position best when he states that:
The 'race to the bottom effect' is real. Liberalization of trade and international investment does put downward pressure on. . . wages [and] labor standards. . . Third World peasants and workers do not enjoy the beneficial effect one might otherwise expect from increased international investment and specialization in labor intensive manufacturing in their countries. By strengthening the bargaining power of global capital versus any and all with whom it negotiates, liberalization of trade and investment leads to downward pressure on wages, labor standards, and environmental standards in First World and Third World countries.
Many anti-sweatshop NGOs have taken sides with this anti-establishmentarian critique of neoclassical political economy.
To conclude, the anti-sweatshop movement has begun to learn how to use globalization to its advantage. The movement has successfully brought a greater awareness to global consumers about the nature of the world's sweatshops. It has also provided an important impetus for certifying organizations, IGOs and governments to take more effective action against sweatshop practices. However, whether or not this movement is eventually able to implement more radical reforms in the world economic system to eliminate sweatshop labor remains to be seen.
- Nicholas D. Kristof, Sheryl WuDunn, "Two Cheers for Sweatshops," N.Y.Times, Sept.9 2000.
The word 'sweatshop' usually evokes a macabre image of brutally exploitative working conditions in certain export-oriented industries of developing market countries. However, Two Cheers for Sweatshops by Kristof and WuDunn turns this image completely on its head. In challenging commonly held negative Western beliefs about the nature of sweatshops, Kristof and WuDunn acknowledge the often terrible conditions of factory work in developing market countries, but strongly argue that sweatshops are a route to prosperity for the developing world. Supported by their extensive news coverage experience of Asia and economic data, the authors ironically maintain that sweatshops will be eliminated not by boycotting sweatshop products, but by buying more of these products. Kristof and WuDunn state that the most substantial danger posed by sweatshops is not exploitation, but pollution. Accordingly, the authors support monitoring sweatshops to remove safety and environmental hazards while advocating the purchase of sweatshop products. Quite simply, the authors argue that increased sweatshop prosperity will eventually lead to increased wages and improved working conditions for laborers. In addition to raising living standards in developing countries, Kristof and WuDunn assert that sweatshops are the basis for an industrial revolution currently underway in Asia.
- Alicia Rebensdorf, "Capitalizing on the Anti-Capitalist Movement," AlterNet, Aug. 7, 2001.
For years, anti-sweatshop and global justice activists have been attacking companies that profit from sweatshop labor. Companies like Nike, Apple, IBM, and the Gap have had their advertisements covered with anti-sweatshop slogans, their logos defaced, and their labor practices characterized as slave labor in the media. Now these companies are attempting to co-opt the anti-establishmentarian techniques of activists and protesters. This article details how Nike, Apple, IBM, and the Gap, like so many companies before them that have co-opted countercultural movements for profit, are trying to capitalize on the radical-chic of the anti-globalization movement. In attempting to co-opt critics by employing pseudo-radical irreverence, Rebensdorf argues that sweatshop companies are looking for a clever and inexpensive way to avoid making any modifications in their labor practices while trying to make more profit. However, the author maintains that that anti-globalization movement will not allow itself to be bought off so easily. She demonstrates that although sweatshop companies are trying to shrug off the negative connotations assigned to their brands by co-opting protest discourse, activists continue to adopt and promote new critiques.
- Gary Gereffi, Ronie Garcia-Johnson, Erika Sasser, "The NGO-Industrial Complex," For. Pol'y, July/Aug. 2001
The main conclusion of this article is that non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have effectively utilized a combination of strength and savvy to force corporations to adopt labor and environmental standards through the mechanism of certification institutions. However, the authors point out the concern that the growth of NGO power and the corresponding decrease in traditional governmental power may further erode the role of states and the international community in the field of corporate regulation. In order to understand the nature of corporate regulation in general, the authors explain the dual purpose of corporate certification institutions to first draft codes of conduct (e.g. the elimination of sweatshop labor) and then to report and monitor compliance with these codes of conduct. The authors then detail the four broad categories of corporate certification: i) first-party certification, where corporations themselves develop their own rules and monitor their own compliance; ii) second-party certification, where entire industries or trade associations create rules and reporting mechanisms; iii) third-party certification, where groups like NGOs draft rules and implement monitoring mechanisms for corporations or industries; and iv) fourth-party certification, where government or multilateral agencies (e.g. the UN) make rules and perform monitoring functions. The authors emphasize the growth in the power and scope of third-part certification via NGOs. Noncompliance with the NGO-supported guidelines stipulated in the certification programs is met with a variety of NGO counter-activities including negative press campaigns, boycotts, banner hangings, leafleting, and other forms of direct action. The authors list several examples of how such "enforcement mechanisms" have been effective in compelling corporations such as Levi Strauss & Co, Liz Claiborne, Nike, Reebok, and the Gap Inc. to adopt and comply with prohibitions on child labor and forced labor, among other things.
- Liza Featherstone, "The New Student Movement," The Nation, May 15, 2000.
Liza Featherstone analyzes the creation and growth of a new student movement in the United States consisting of a series of campus groups focused on drawing attention to and eliminating sweatshop labor. Featherstone writes that this new left movement has abandoned the 'identity politics' that characterized student activism during the 1980s and 1990s. Where identity politics championed the idea that the 'personal is political' and fragmented activists along the lines of ethnic, racial, gender, and sexual orientation differences, the new student movement has been focused on building unity and solidarity around an anti-corporate, anti-sweatshop agenda. Featherstone describes how the new student movement has made substantial progress with its anti-sweatshop platform. Through sit-ins, teach-ins, press campaigns, and a battery of creative tactics, student movements have compelled several universities to change university purchasing and contracting policies with regards to such things as collegiate apparel. The student movements have had the additional effect of making universities change their affiliation with such corporate-backed organizations as the Fair Labor Association (FLA) to non-corporate organizations like the Workers Rights Consortium (WRC) to better ensure compliance with anti-sweatshop guidelines. Featherstone concludes by stating that although not all of the new student activists are radicals, the new anti-corporate student movement has both universities and big business concerned about their growing activism and potential.