By Jay Kerr
“Sweatshops are post-modern day slavery.”
This was the language used by Jord Samolesky, the drummer of seminal Canadian punk band, Propagandhi, in our recent film Punks Against Sweatshops. And he’s right. When you strip away the glamour of the fashion industry, and look behind the cheap prices of the high street shops, you’ll find a trillion-dollar industry run on the backs of the most vulnerable people in the societies of developing nations across the world. People that are forced by poverty into a factory and then find themselves confined there by poverty’s unending economic cycle, and in many cases, by physical restraint: locked in the workshop at night, having their passports confiscated so that they can’t leave, and threatened with violence if they try to complain. These are the conditions that people in sweatshops work under, conditions of post-modern day slavery. And these are the conditions that the anti-sweatshop movement has been fighting for over two decades.
Most people are aware of what a sweatshop is, and if they are unfamiliar with the word then a quick reference to people in far-off countries, working long hours, in poor conditions, and earning a pittance while making clothes for major brands, will soon bring familiarity with the issue. Wages, hours and conditions are key elements of the sweatshop nightmare that exists on a global scale, making sweatshop exploitation very much a workers rights issue. But, this form of exploitation doesn’t stop there, it spreads out and touches lives across the spectrum.
Of the estimated 70 million garment workers in the world, over 80% of them are women. In factories where bosses see women as weaker they will create harsher conditions to maximise production targets. Toilet breaks, for example, are often rigorously timed with penalties for too much time spent away from the workstation. Beyond the financial impact on wages and the psychological impact on workers, this often has an impact on women’s menstrual health. In many sweatshop factories sick leave is unpaid and not calling in sick could lead to a sweatshop worker being sacked on the spot. Likewise, women who become pregnant often face discrimination and even dismissal. A climate of fear and intimidation among women workers has been reported repeatedly by NGOs investigating the industry in multiple countries. This intimidation often involves sexual harassment and abuse. Women who try to report these crimes often find themselves targeted with further discrimination: harassing workers until they resign, refusal of overtime, and concerted efforts to reduce their take-home pay, all contribute to silencing women workers.
Sweatshops are a feminist issue.
The long hours and low wages often have an impact on family life. Sweatshop workers forced to work long hours often rely on extended family members to care for their children, in many cases sending kids off to live with family far away. For those that don’t have this option, the daily wage not covering the basic needs of more than one person coming into a household with children means tough choices. Sweatshop workers, all of whom will want their children to have a decent life, are forced into a position of sending their children out to work in order to make ends meet. Millions of children around the world are forced into work from a young age and never get the opportunities of a basic education.
Sweatshops are a children’s right issue.
Workers that send their children to stay with family far away are often migrant workers, migrating from the countryside to the cities looking for work, or even across boarders to other countries, commonly without documentation, leaving them vulnerable to gangs involved in people trafficking. When workers migrate they are often forced into workplaces proficient at exploiting their vulnerability. Wages are lower than documented workers, workshops often double as accommodation and are commonly fire hazards. When workers do have documentation, they often have it confiscated by employers so that the workers can’t leave freely. Without documentation migrant workers, already susceptible to police harassment on the streets, run the risk of deportation, usually following an experience of police violence. What little money migrant sweatshop workers do earn is usually sent to support families back home, leaving them in an ever consistent impoverished state.
Sweatshops are a migrant rights issue.
The trillion-dollar garment industry run through sweatshops in the Global South is responsible for an output of clothing that feeds fast fashion in the West. The cheap clothes still bring huge profits to the brands and high street shops, while the workers slave away in poverty. The environmental cost of this industry is huge, with intensive production of genetically modified, pesticide-based cotton that consumes vast quantities of water or the synthetic materials used in clothing, now known to be contributing to the microplastics in our oceans, both providing the garment industry with the raw materials needed. The cheapness of clothes made in sweatshops with such huge quantities of unsustainable materials has the knock-on effect of keeping the cost of organic alternatives high, while the cost to life on earth is even higher.
Sweatshops are a climate crisis issue.
So what’s the solution?
The main solution to sweatshop exploitation is a united workforce, collectively fighting for their rights in the work place, for better hours, wages, and conditions – and this means forming trade unions. But as we’ve said, workers will often face discrimination and retaliation if they try to organise, so international solidarity is key to their success. We can’t change the world by shopping but we can voice our support for the workers that make the things we buy. Social change does not come from the top down but the bottom up, so by people supporting campaigns that call on brands to make sure their suppliers are allowing unions in their factories, we can build solidarity with the workers in those factories and help to change their conditions.
No Sweat is one of the groups building this international solidarity. Our new T-shirt project is a way of highlighting the importance of this international solidarity, while at the same time funding it. At No Sweat, we import T-shirts from a workers co-op in Bangladesh run by former sweatshop workers, for wholesale in the UK, and the plan is to use the profits to fund garment workers unions that are fighting for the rights of sweatshop workers. The co-operative that makes the T-shirts pays a higher rate of pay than the average garment factory in the region, and then 50% of the profits are shared among the workers, bringing their wages up to the recommended living wage identified by unions in the country. As an example of best practice, the co-op also pays for the workers’ medical fees should they get sick, and funds school places for the workers’ children.
We want to see this co-op grow and thrive, giving the opportunity for more workers to join them and get out of the sweatshop nightmare. But, more importantly, as this T-shirt project grows, we can fund trade unions working with sweatshop workers and build our international solidarity campaigns around the struggles in these workplaces.
The fight against sweatshops is an international worker solidarity issue.
Jay Kerr is an activist for No Sweat.
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