T-Shirts and Sweatshops

Barry Carr

“Sweating for a T-Shirt.” A video by Global Exchange. In English or Spanish, 23 minutes. $25 for individuals, $50 community organizations, $100 institutions.

THE NEW INTERNATIONAL Division of Labor is a rather abstract concept which embraces such issues as runaway shops; the deindustrialization of developed economies; the explosion of off-shore assembly and manufacturing plants (maquiladoras) in Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean; the accentuation of sweated labor and coercion of (mostly) women’s labor; and virtually everything else connected with that buzz word of the 1990s&#8212globalization.

Globalization is often presented as an inexorable “steamroller” drive towards internationalization of politics and economics following a logic set by big investors and traders. In this script globalization sweeps aside a century of achievements by the labor movement, weakens if not destroys national sovereignties and encourages a rush towards savage international competition at the cost of worsened wages and living conditions for working people&#8212leading to the gradual equalization of life conditions in North and South.

This sketch is not entirely inaccurate. “Sweating for a T-Shirt,” an excellent new video produced by Global Exchange in San Francisco, provides abundant evidence of the appalling conditions under which clothing is produced in maquiladora plants in Honduras: long hours of overtime, abysmally low wages, regimes of labor discipline regulated by daily production targets that are achievable only at the cost of acute fatigue and industrial sicknesses, and a labor relations regime which is extraordinarily hostile to unionization.

As “Sweating for a T-Shirt” shows, however, references to the steamroller effect of globalization are excessively simplistic and can dishearten people concerned with labor rights and social justice. For globalization also generates some unexpected consequences.

The 1990s have seen the emergence of a variety of social movements&#8212unions and advocacy groups, environmental, human rights and indigenous people’s organizations&#8212which have learned how to exploit internationalization of politics, economic life and communications in order to build cross-border alliances between the first and third worlds.

Cooperative projects have developed between unions in Canada, the United States and Mexico, and U.S. and Canadian labor and social justice organizations [US-Guatemala Labor Education Project (US-GLEP), National Labor Committee, the clothing workers union UNITE and the Canadian Automobile Workers (CAW), to mention a few examples] have more than a decade of experience working with unions and workers in Central America and the Caribbean.

“Sweating for a T-Shirt” is clearly designed to educate and politicize consumers&#8212and rather privileged consumers it seems, judging by the scenes of well-dressed and coiffured young students making their way around the campuses of UCLA and Brown University.

The producers don’t pull any punches. Most students interviewed on campus seem unaware where their campus-logo embossed clothes are manufactured, and most of the young people interviewed don’t seem to care either.

The viewer is then introduced to several maquiladora plants in the Honduran city of San Pedro Sula, where workers explain how difficult it is to form unions. The most impressive scenes without any doubt are the shots of women workers struggling to meet their daily quotas. Finally, we have a movie which brings terms like “speed-up” to life for audiences who often have little idea of how factory discipline is maintained.

At the end of the video the audience is introduced to the students of Brown University, an Ivy League college where students have recently forced the administration to adopt a campus Code of Conduct regulating the conditions under which clothing carrying the campus logo is manufactured.

Campaigns to educate consumers and pressure retailers to oblige suppliers and contractors to adopt codes of conduct regulating labor conditions and wages have in fact enjoyed a modest success in the United States. But it would be wrong to exaggerate and romanticize the impact of these consumer oriented and “corporate” campaigns.

In recent months one of the most important victories achieved by consumer campaigns&#8212the Chicago-based US-GLEP campaign, which forced the recognition of the first union contract ever seen in a Guatemalan clothing maquiladora (supplying Van Heusen in the United States) was rolled back when the maquiladora concerned suspended production.

This is a case in which a campaign targeted at U.S. consumers and retailers had been accompanied by a carefully and discretely managed strategy to provide North American support for unionization campaigns within Guatemala&#8212something that we might call a combination of corporate campaign and class struggle.

This (hopefully temporary) setback to the Van Heusen campaign demonstrates the continuing relevance of the arguments developed more than a decade and a half ago by two British students of international labor solidarity initiatives. Multinational capital and its allies, Nigel Hawarth and Ramsey argued, are not sitting targets and are quick to respond to challenges from labor initiatives.

Eroding the power of capital by nibbling away at it may be rather unrealistic. Borrowing a metaphor from the British socialist and economic historian R.H. Tawney, these authors note that capital is a tiger not an onion&#8212i.e. it is not peeled without resistance and replies with ferocity when attacked!

The onion metaphor is an amusing one. But just as we should not exaggerate the opportunities for labor “fightback,” it would be equally unwise to underestimate the ability of workers, unions and social movements to respond creatively to the challenges of globalization.

Globalization from below is already a reality. While there is no one to one correspondence between the drive for regional economic integration (NAFTA, Mercosur) and the emergence of new forms of labor internationalism, a great deal of energy has been expended in promoting cross-border visits by rank and file members of unions in first and third world nations.

Moreover, the worst excesses of protectionism and chauvinism do seem to have been avoided by union and community advocates of international labor solidarity.

“Sweating for a T-Shirt” is a very effective way of introducing “western” audiences to issues posed by globalization. The video should be accompanied, though, by a frank discussion of some of the tensions and contradictions present in consumer and corporate campaigning and cross-border labor organizing.

To order: By phone, call 1-800-497-1994. By fax: 415.255.7498. By e-mail: info@globalexchange.org By mail: Global Exchange, 2017 Mission St., Room 303, San Francisco, CA 94110.

ATC 82, September-October 1999