Assessing anti-sweatshop campaigns

Author: 
Bruce Robinson

Today’s globalised clothing industry involves transnational networks of production and sales in which manufacturing is subcontracted to producers, usually in developing countries.

To respond to the often horrific sweatshop conditions that result requires organising across national frontiers with multiple targets — the brands under which the clothes are sold and the subcontractors who supply them.

In a new book about garment workers * Ethel Brooks provides a critique of certain forms of “transnational labor organising” by looking at both ends of the chain, which she divides into the global (campaigning in the US in support of garment workers) and the local (the real conditions in the countries and factories where production takes place).

She argues that several US campaigns of the mid-90s, by ignoring the specificities of “the local” and also taking agency and control away from the workers they were supposed to be supporting, were counter-productive in terms of any real progress out of sweatshop conditions and towards self-emancipation. She also questions the way women workers are presented as victims or models in those campaigns.

Brooks looks at three major campaigns: on child labour in Bangladesh; protests against working conditions in an export processing zones in El Salvador; and against abuses of immigrant workers in New York. She includes detailed research on the situations of the workers and the local contexts behind their struggles.

Brooks is particularly critical of three aspects of these campaigns. Firstly, that they are oriented to US consumers who are presented as having the power to fight sweatshop labour through their consumption decisions, thus detracting from the agency of the workers and the centrality of production relations, reducing the action to pressure on the corporations and letting people think they are accomplishing something when they shop. She also points out that the consequences (for example, of the US law boycotting Bangladeshi products made with child labour) may be bad for the workers involved.

Secondly, such campaigns often paint sweatshop production as something apart from the normal operation of global capital, so that the owners of the US brands can say they didn’t know about the conditions in their subcontractors’ factories or that certain firms are bad employers. Brooks details the case of Kathie Lee Gifford, who used the exposure of some of her suppliers to claim the moral high ground through a televised “confession” and expression of regret which allowed her company to carry on business as usual.

Thirdly, she claims that such campaigns go over the heads of the workers involved. One aspect of this is that agreements are signed around issues such as independent monitoring of subcontractors without the consent of the workers. Another criticism is that such campaigns are controlled by activists who present particular identities and information as the basis for campaigning, ignoring the multiple identities of women garment workers as “classed, gendered, racialised”. This is part of Brooks’ post-modern concerns with forms of discourse and identity.

There is much in Brooks’ critique of these campaigns that activists involved in No Sweat would agree with. No Sweat oppose boycotts, characterise sweatshop labour as “modern, global capitalism stripped bare” rather than an exceptional state of affairs, and seek to build links with independent workers’ and community organisations, focusing on their working and living conditions and their own campaigns and struggles.

But there is a major problem with Brooks’ position. It is overgeneral – applied to attempts all at international labour organising – and out of date. Although the book was published in 2007, there is no reference to the development of anti-sweatshop campaigning in the eight years following Seattle and the growth of the movement “for globalisation from below” beyond a passing remark that there has been “a learning curve” for activists. Certainly many of the lessons she draws have been assimilated by them (or were even recognised beforehand) – which is not to suggest that all aspects of sweatshop campaigning are easy or unproblematic.

Brooks’ postmodern position threatens to dissolve any sort of activism away from the sites of “the local”. She even questions her own right to present the results of her research and represent the situation of the workers. “Does this mean that transnational organizing cannot happen?… Not necessarily.” She picks out as an example of where it is possible a Bengali women’s organisation where women are “reframing their own subjectivity… as actors and agents” and refusing to let solidarity organisations define its agency.

Fine. No Sweat also seeks to work with independent organisations, above all unions, that represent a real assertion of the power of the workers and their communities. But to restrict campaigning to supporting these organisations is to lose real opportunities to support the many women workers who are fighting their sweatshop conditions. Much of what Brooks says should be taken as points activists should be aware of and seek to act on. But it is wrong then to draw the conclusion that little is possible.

* Review of Ethel C. Brooks, Unraveling the Garment Industry: Transnational Organizing and Women’s Work, University of Minnesota Press, 2007.