Since the feature article was written, three young female workers from garment factories in Bangladesh have arrived in the United States and have begun a month-long speaking tourof at least 19 colleges and universities, under the sponsorship of the National Labor Committee. They are accompanied on their tour by a translator and by Charles Kernaghan, Executive Director of the NLC. The group spoke twice in Bloomington-Normal on October 26, once on the Illinois State University campus and later at the Laborer’s Hall in Bloomington.
National Labor Committee
The National Labor Committee is one of several organizations that are concerned with issues of human rights abuses as they relate to workers around the world. The NLC serves a primarily educational, consciousness-raising function. On its web site (www.nlcnet.org) can be found a variety of thought provoking and emotionally riveting reports on sweatshop issues in a number of ‘developing’ countries. There is a link to “Wages Around the World: How Much Do Apparel Workers Make?”, which compares the average base wage of a garment manufacturing worker in the US to that of her counterparts in 20 other nations.
Another of the NLC’s web pages, entitled “Resources and Reports”, allows you to follow links to information organized by country (American Samoa, Bangladesh, Burma, China, El Salvador, Haiti, Honduras, and Nicaragua are currently listed) or by company (including Wal-Mart, Kathie Lee, Nike, Liz Claiborne, the Gap, Ralph Lauren, and Disney, all significant abusers of workers’ rights). There is a particularly detailed chart documenting the wages and working conditions at a number of factories in China. Still other links take you to personal testimonies by apparel workers in Bangladesh and Nicaragua.
A rather detailed curriculum vitae of the NLC’s Executive Director Charles Kernaghan reveals that, among his other more notable accomplishments, his testimony before Congress in 1996 caused Kathie Lee Gifford to cry on national television.
Worker Rights Consortium
Another national non-profit organization, the Worker Rights Consortium, attempts to alleviate sweatshop abuses by working with colleges and universities to implement manufacturing Codes of Conduct. These codes apply to the companies (called ‘licensees’), and their subcontractors, from whom the universities procure apparel and other goods inscribed with the university’s name or logo. The WRC offers a Model Code of Conduct which can be used by a member school in its contracts with licensees, and universities are ‘encouraged’ to adopt a code of conduct that is at least as strong as the WRC model. But a university meets WRC affiliation requirements as long as its code of conduct incorporates certain basic protections for workers in such designated areas as wages, working conditions. freedom of association, and child labor.
As of October 16, 2001, 88 member schools were listed as being affiliated with the WRC. Included among them are the University of Illinois at both Urbana-Champaign and Chicago, and ISU in Bloomington-Normal.
A university affiliated with the Worker Rights Consortium is required to furnish the WRC with data on all of its licensees. The WRC’s web site (www.workersrights.org) includes a useful search feature, with which a person can type in the name of a member institution and get a listing of all the university’s suppliers. A search of UIUC yielded a list of 2,357 companies, though there was some duplication. While the vast majority of them were firms in the United States, the list also contained a number of manufacturers in Bangladesh, Pakistan, Malaysia, China, Honduras, and Mexico, among others.
However, ascertaining which of these companies might be sweatshops is a good deal more difficult. The WRC web site contains a link to what it calls its “Factory Assessment Program”, but only two factories are currently listed as having been investigated and found to have engaged in serious violations of workers’ rights. Interestingly, UIUC does business with both of them – Kukdong International, a subcontractor located in Atlixco, Mexico that furnishes ‘blank fleece products’ to Nike, and New Era Cap Company in Derby, New York, which deals directly with UIUC.
Coming full circle, a comparison of the list of UIUC’s suppliers on the WRC web site with the testimonies of garment workers in Bangladesh found on the NLC web site reveals that Janu Akther, one of the young women currently touring the US, is employed by Actor Sporting Goods in Savar Dhaka, Bangladesh, another of UIUC’s suppliers.
United Students Against Sweatshops
A third organization engaged in fighting worker abuse is the United Students Against Sweatshops, which has affiliated student organizations on a number of university campuses in the US and abroad. Perusal of its web site (www.usasnet.org), which is still somewhat under construction, suggests that the primary function of the USAS is to encourage students to form SAS groups on their campus. These campus groups then educate others in the community about sweatshop issues, and induce their university to affiliate itself with the Worker Rights Consortium and develop a code of conduct for its suppliers.
These three organizations are all of relatively recent origin, and a tremendous amount of work remains to be done to eliminate or even reduce sweatshop abuses around the world. Without question, the rapidlyincreasing transplantation of garment manufacturing jobs by multinational corporations in recent years from the US to factories in ‘developing’ nations has only exacerbated the problem.
The principal impediments to humane treatment of workers abroad seem to be the tremendous profitability inherent in worker exploitation,and an absence of effective enforcement mechanisms when a manufacturer is found to be abusing its employees. Private sector retailers such as Wal-Mart and Disney can be reined in only by stockholders with moral qualms – a most unlikely scenario – or by bad public relations which may result in slumping sales of their sweatshop-produced garments.
And while a university is free in theory to cease doing business with a licensee who fails to honor the Code of Conduct incorporated into its contract, both the National Labor Committee and the Worker Rights Consortium encourage universities to negotiate with manufacturers in an effort to remedy violations, improve factory conditions, and maintain a constructive working relationship. Sadly, as Janu Akther says through an interpreter, “It’s better to be exploited than have no job in Bangladesh.”