By Alison Brown
150 anti-sweatshop activists met in Sheffield on 29-30 November to debate, discuss and consider future campaigning priorities.
Students and trade unionists listened as Mick Duncan from No Sweat and Neil Kearney, a leader of the international garment workers' union, ITGFWU, opened the event. Mick stressed the need to build campaigning unity between the trade union movement and anti-capitalist youth and students. Mick advocated a sharp, clear focus on working class self-organisation and support for international workers' struggles.
Charles Arthur from the Haitian Support Group echoed mick's words. Charles explained how his organisation worked with some of the most oppressed and exploited sweatshop workers. Charles screened the film Disney Goes to Haiti which left no-one in any doubt about the absolute squalor that Haitian workers live in, and the oppressive, dangerous conditions they face at work.
No Sweat and the Haiti Support Group announced they intend to organise a British speaker tour in March with a sweatshop union organiser from Haiti.
Muayad Ahmed, recently returned from Baghdad, explained the pressing need to make solidarity with the emerging Iraqi workers' movement and, in particular, the new unemployed workers' movement. He highlighted the dangers facing worker and socialist activists from Islamist and Ba'athist opponents - in clear contrast to many on the anti-war left, Muayad appealed for a clear line between working-class organisation and the other anti-US forces.
Jane Li, who flew to the event from the dynamic US student anti-sweatshop movement, USAS, told a practical workshop how USAS went about building solidarity for workers' rights. In a detailed briefing she explained the techniques developed by a series of generations of student activists which have made USAS the most successful campus campaign since the Vietnam war. USAS has forged strong links with the US union movement by, for example, fighting for a living wage for workers in US colleges. USAS students often graduate to move on and use their skills in organising for the trade unions.
Chantal Finney from Labour Behind the Label introduced a discussion on public procurement policy. Chantal described how the European anti-sweatshop movement is increasingly discussing ways to challenge the buying policies of local councils and other public bodies. A considerable amount of work needs to be carried out to brief activists about the complex legal situation. Nevertheless those participating generally felt this was an area in which multi-faceted campaigns can be run which could combine work through local political structures and direct action.
Other speakers included Jeremy Dear of the National Union of Journalists, and Tim Jones and Colin Chalmers from the Simon Jones Campaign. Training workshops took place on how to research sweatshop companies, use of the internet to help workers struggles and how to organise direct action.
- A raffle in aid of the workers' struggle at Tarrant garments, Puebla, Mexico, raised £84.20.
Haiti: Workers abused at uniform-making factory
from Behind The Label
"They lock the gates on us and sometimes put security guards out in front with rifles to prevent us from leaving," said Jacqueline, as she described the method her employer uses to force workers to work over 10 hours a day without compensation. "The supervisors would yell and curse at us to finish our quota. My daily quota is sewing 90 dozen zippers on pants for 80 gourds [$2 US]."
Jacqueline works for a Cintas subcontractor, Haitian American Apparel. She estimates that she is just one of 1,500 workers who make uniforms for Cintas, and whose daily reality is working in conditions that are in severe violation of Haitian Labour Codes and International Labour Standards, as well as Cintas' own Code of Conduct.
Jacqueline, a 42-year-old mother of four, lives in a one room shack in Cite Soleil, one of the most impoverished and dangerous urban slums of Port-au-Prince - no running water, sewage, or electricity. "I begin work at 6:30am and normally finish my quota by 5pm," she began. "The factory gets so hot it is like working in fire. Inside the air is so hot and full of dust that I can't breathe, so I would put my handkerchief around my nose and continue working," she said.
Patrick, a 26-year-old worker said, "The heat and dust and noise and the pace of work become so overwhelming, workers just faint at their machines. I don't know if it's out of exhaustion, heat, or dehydration. All the supervisors do is throw water on them until the worker gets up and then the supervisors tell them to get back to work."
The factory pays less than the legal minimum of $0.22 per hour (the cost of living in Haiti is three times the legal minimum wage).
Cintas is the largest uniform rental provider in North America and has enjoyed 34 years of consecutive growth. Sales in 2002 were U.S. $2.27 billion, and profits were $234 million.
Under Cintas' Code of Conduct, Cintas has a responsibility to ensure that labour rights are respected in their subcontracted facilities.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration has cited Cintas for over 100 health and safety violations.
US university students are now taking action to get their colleges to stop doing business with Cintas until Cintas respects workers' rights.
H&M, the high street clothes retailer, is mounting an increasingly vindictive campaign of union-busting in the US.
Following an appeal from the US union, Unite, a dozen GMB London and No Sweat activists picketed their Oxford Circus store on Thursday 27 November. Our action coincided with protests in the US.
A worker from the Indonesian firm, PT Busana Prima Global, is speaking in London on Thursday 11 December. PT Busana produces sportswear for companies like Le Coq Sportif and Head.
In June, 174 workers struck for four days to demand their employer respect the minimum wage laws, they have been denied work since 16 July and have had almost no income for three months.
7.00 Thursday 11 December at ULU, Malet Street, Euston, London. (Tubes: Euston, Russell Square and Goodge Street)
Organised by Labour Behind the Label (01603 610993) and No Sweat.