Albion Monitor /News

International Protest of Sweatshops

by Peter Zirnite

(IPS) WASHINGTON -- Members of North America's second largest union took to the streets here and elsewhere on June 21 to demonstrate their support for striking workers in Brazil.

Although it may not be obvious to many people, organizers with the International Brotherhood of Teamsters said the protests were linked directly to recent headline-grabbing revelations about the proliferation of sweatshops.

The connection, according to Andy Banks, international representative for the 1.4 million-member Teamsters Union, is that process of economic globalization has empowered multinational corporations at labor's expense.

"We are fighting back," Banks said about the "militant demonstrations" his union held outside Brazilian diplomatic missions around the United States, including its embassy here.

Activists should exploit the media spotlight from revelations that Kathie Lee Gifford and other U.S. celebrities lent endorsements to sweatshop clothing

The Teamsters, who were joined by members of other U.S. unions, want to express their support for a one-day, nationwide strike being organized by Brazil's largest labor federations to protest government economic policies designed to further integrate Brazil into the global trading system.

Support for the general strike being called by Central Unica dos Trabalhadores (CUT), the second largest labor federation in the world, is an "unprecedented act of solidarity with unions in the South," according to Banks. Banks stressed that in response to international economic integration "labor has to be global."

But cross-border union organizing is only part of a multi-faceted strategy labor activists are pursuing to empower workers in what they see as a life-and-death struggle against multinational corporations. They also are appealing to consumers and the corporations themselves, to assume greater responsibility for global working conditions.

"There are no simple solutions," said Sarah Anderson, a specialist in economic globalization at the Institute for Policy Studies, a progressive Washington-based think tank.

The "place to start," according to Anderson, is for activists to fully exploit the media spotlight attracted to the issue of worker rights by recent revelations that Kathie Lee Gifford and other U.S. celebrities had lent their endorsement to clothing manufactured in sweatshops in Honduras and New York.

The popular television talk show hostess, whose clothes are sold by the U.S. retailing giant Wal-Mart Stores, initially denied any wrongdoing, but she later agreed to work with labor activists and Wal-Mart officials to improve working conditions.

For Anderson, there is no question that the proliferation of sweatshops, such as those that produced the Kathie Lee line of clothing, is a direct result of economic integration.

"Globalization of the economy," she said, "has made it easier for companies to be zipping around the world to find the lowest wages, the most exploitable work force."

Carol Graham, an analyst for the Washington-based Brookings Institution, disagreed. "You cannot blame this on globalization," she said. Before globalization, she added, "the conditions may have been worse."

Stressing that she was "not condoning multinational corporations behaving in that manner," Graham said the proliferation of sweatshops is a result of ineffective or non-existent labor regulations in individual countries.

Banks, Anderson and others acknowledge that sweatshops existed long before the process of economic globalization began, but they argue that the worldwide drive for freer trade has allowed corporations to take greater advantage of ineffective national labor regulations.

"We are all for globalization," said Banks. "What we are not in favor of is giving all the power in the globe to one actor, multinational corporations."

The question of whether economic globalization has fueled the proliferation of sweatshops notwithstanding, Anderson said corporate reactions to the recent bad publicity "are small signs of hope that we can turn the tide."

Wal-Mart immediately cut its ties with Global Fashions, the Korean-owned firm that was producing the Kathie Lee line of clothing in Honduras. And Gifford asked the retailer to return production only if Global Fashion agreed to allow independent monitoring of work conditions.

Recent bad publicity has put corporate executives "on the edge of their seats"

The National Labor Committee for Human Rights in Central America (NLC), the New York organization that exposed Gifford's sweatshop connection, has since revealed that the K-mart line of women's apparel sold under the name of former television star Jaclyn Smith was produced under similar conditions in Honduras. This embarrassed the U.S. retailer into demanding the right to make random, on-site inspections of all its subcontractors.

The NLC, which has also accused Walt Disney of licensing Haitian sweatshops to produce its trade-mark apparel, is using the publicity it has garnered to force corporations to adopt codes of conduct that would create independent workplace monitoring systems.

The NLC's David Cox said the watchdog group wants U.S. companies to adopt plans similar to the one the NLC forced the Gap to put in place in El Salvador following a national consumer-protest campaign last year against the apparel retailers' use of sweatshops.

"The issue is hotter than it has ever been," said Cox, who added that the recent bad publicity has put corporate executives "on the edge of their seats."

Anderson, however, cautioned about the potential "danger" of corporations using codes of conduct "for good public relations without the type of monitoring that is necessary to prove that they have changed their behavior.

For this reason, she said, it is critical in the fight against rising corporate power for labor unions to engage in "cross-border solidarity work." Without such efforts, she added, corporations will continue to "pit workers in the U.S. against workers in Central America and other low-wage countries."

"We have to stop the race to the bottom," Teamster organizer Banks agreed.

He pointed out that the Brazilian shoe industry boomed when companies left the United States in search of lower productions costs, but now is threatened by cheaper Chinese imports, many of which are being re-exported after "Made in Brazil" labels are sewn in.

"There is a point where you are not even competing in terms of wages," Banks continued. "Once you have reached the absolute lowest in terms of wages, everything then comes at the cost of human rights."

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Albion Monitor July 7, 1996 (

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