Sweatshops still make your clothes

If you care about ethical labor standards, your clothing choices are more limited than you might think

Published March 21, 2013 3:36PM (EDT)

 Anne Hathaway in "The Devil Wears Prada"
Anne Hathaway in "The Devil Wears Prada"

This is the fourth installment in a new series called Working Ahead, which will examine key issues facing the modern American worker, and how we can use our everyday spending habits to help save and create good jobs. The series is brought to you by the AFL-CIO. To read the other stories in this series, click here.

It’s been 16 years since Charles Kernaghan made Kathie Lee Gifford cry on national television, revealing that her Wal-Mart-sold clothing line was produced by Honduran children working 20-hour shifts. It was an essential moment in bringing labor conditions in the developing world -- specifically in the garment industry -- to the attention of the American public.

But not that much has changed. Looking back on the movement and its achievements in an interview, Kernaghan sounds defeated, even as he reels off the list of horrific factories exposed by his Institute for Global Labour and Human Rights.

Kernaghan’s gloomy mood stems from the report he is writing now on a recent trip to Northern Bengal, where the Institute secretly met with workers from the Rosita and Megatex factories to follow up on a previous exposé. The two factories produce expensive sweaters for an array of European apparel companies, companies which assure their customers that the workers are guaranteed the core rights established by the International Labor Organization (ILO), including freedom of association and the elimination of child labor.

Well, that turns out not to exactly be the case. And it turns out that most Americans still likely know very little about the conditions under which the clothes they wear were produced.

“It was ridiculous. In fact it was one of the worst factories we’ve seen,” says Kernaghan. “There was child labor, people were being beaten, cheated of their wages -- and wages were very, very low. Male supervisors would constantly press young women to have sex with them.”

The Institute followed every development: The presidents of the workers’ committee (not even a legally recognized union) were both threatened with assassination. There was every reason to take these murderous threats seriously: the Bangladeshi Export Processing Zone Authority, which runs the free trade zone where the factories are located, is run by former military operatives. Police stations are located right outside the factory, and police cars stud the surrounding blocks, but not for the protection of the employees. When workers demonstrated for their rights, hundreds were beaten by the police and then fired. The committee presidents at the time were beaten, tortured, fired and banned from coming anywhere near the factory.

Rosita is owned by a Chinese company, South Ocean, one of the largest knitwear manufacturers in the world. Kernaghan and his colleagues brought the workers to the Embassy of the Netherlands, where they met with representatives from a host of European nations. But what about the corporations that depended on the abusive factory?

“These corporations are not even embarrassed when you bring this up,” says Kernaghan. “We’ve got an international system that is never going to work until there are internationally recognized workers rights standards that become law. What are we going to do with Bangladesh, for example, when the government is dysfunctional. How can you have ethical trading with a country that has no rules? We do a lot of garment stuff and most of it is a disaster. I can’t imagine anything changing, but I do believe that the vast majority of people have a heart and a soul and would love to do the right thing. It’s just hard to figure out how to do that.”

* * *

On average Americans buy 64 garments every year, the overwhelming majority made overseas. Multiple polls and studies have shown that consumers want to buy ethically made clothing. In a recent National Consumers League poll, 59 percent of respondents said it is “very important” that the products they purchase are not made in dangerous or unfair conditions, while 94 percent said that the way workers are treated is important to them. A 2006 study published in the American Sociological Association’s journal included multiple surveys that showed supermajorities of shoppers willing to pay anywhere from $1 to $5 more for garments made in humane conditions (the percent fell as theoretical prices rose).

The tricky part is finding clothing that has actually been made ethically. If consumers really put time and effort into their shopping, it is still possible to hunt down the smattering of garment lines made by unionized companies. The AFL-CIO keeps track in its Union Label database, but there are only 55 entries under “Clothing/Accessories” and most of them source to a few companies like Joseph Abboud or King Louie. A given retailer might have some of these brands, but it will take a lot of possibly fruitless label peeking to find out. (Simply “Buying American” is not enough: There are plenty of wage-stealing garment manufacturers here too.)

The International Labor Rights Forum collects producers that include union shops and small cooperatives in their annual “Shop With a Conscience Consumer Guide,” but the brief list contains no major companies, recognizable brands or noticeably hip products. As journalist and labor academic Liza Featherstone noted in an unpublished 2007 paper on consumers and ethical purchasing, both the failed Sweat X and No Sweat garment lines struggled to find market niches because their clothing simply wasn’t that appealing. “I (a labor-conscious and only mildly fashion-conscious consumer) personally won’t buy clothes from Sweat X because they aren’t particularly nice-looking,” Feathersone writes.

A few fashionable companies have branded themselves as socially conscious. On its web site, the popular shoe company TOMS claims: “We’ve engaged respected third parties to review and verify our product manufacturers within our supply chain on a facility-by-facility basis to identify potential risks” and “our factories in Argentina, Ethiopia and China are all third party audited to ensure they employ no child labor, and pay fair wages.” (The identity of these inspectors is not clear on the web site and attempts to reach the company by phone and email proved unsuccessful.)

When American Apparel first burst onto the scene, it heavily emphasized that its products are made in a Los Angeles factory by relatively well-paid workers, although the CEO later played down that aspect of the company. But the company is staunchly anti-union and its image has been tarnished by its creepily sexualized retail hiring practices and multiple charges of sexual harassment leveled against the CEO. But these companies, flawed though they are, are still undoubtedly superior to the labor practices of the great majority of the apparel industry.

* * *

Part of American Apparel’s appeal is that it can easily prove the relative morality of its manufacturing due to its single, centralized production site in Los Angeles. The expansive global supply chains that bring goods from factories to retail stores are incredibly intricate, and involve many layers of contractors and sub-contractors, and that’s just the way companies like it. (Apparel is especially difficult, because it involves ethical cotton harvesting in addition to transportation, manufacturing, warehousing.)

The greater the complexity, the greater the ability to save money on terrible labor practices, and shirk responsibility when they are exposed. But as Nelson Lichtenstein recently said of Wal-Mart: “There are layers of subcontractors, but it’s all one system. It’s a mass sweatshop … The industry is the supply chain, regardless of who is the technical employer.” Indeed the Arkansas-based retailer seems to go out of its way to prove just how barbaric, at every level of the supply chain, its labor practices can get.

For example, consider one of Kernaghan’s most horrifying exposés: In 2011 he penned a report on Classic, the largest factory in Jordan. Management hired young women from Asia, stripped them of their passports, forced them to work grueling hours for awful pay under a managerial regime that subjected them to routine rape. One woman hung herself in the factory’s bathroom with her own scarf after allegedly being raped at the hands of a manager. The Jordanian Department of Labor, when informed of the abuses, did nothing.

After Kernaghan’s exposé, Kohl's, Macy's and Lands' End stopped doing business with Classic (they represented 8 percent of its export trade), but the factory’s chief customer, Wal-Mart, was unfazed. One serial rapist manager was fired, but many of the other managers accused of rape are still employed there, and women continue to disappear from the factory under highly suspicious circumstances. (Colleagues believe they are being murdered or sold into sexual slavery). According to documents recently smuggled out of the factory, 75 percent of Classic-made apparel is still going to Wal-Mart and Hanes.

Wal-Mart may be one of the worst corporate actors, but it is far from alone. “There are companies that do some nice things, but not such that you would call them, in any way, shape or form, responsible companies,” says Scott Nova, director of the Worker Rights Consortium, an organization that independently inspects factory labor conditions.

No major companies have attempted to appeal to consumer demand for ethical products with specific ethical clothing lines, because any such concession would naturally lead to questions about the rest of their catalog. Activist campaigns have forced concessions, but they have been limited in scope.

“Nike discloses the names and locations of all its factories, and that’s useful, but it’s not like Nike isn’t egregiously exploiting hundreds of thousands of workers on a daily basis, which they absolutely are,” says Nova. “We have a global sourcing model that is extremely destructive and inhumane. You cannot point to a major consumer products company that has chosen to jettison that model in favor of something more humane.”

* * *

Even if the essential problems remain the same, the anti-sweatshop movement has won real concessions since it began gathering momentum in the early 1990s. A few decades ago the apparel industry refused to acknowledge that it had any responsibility for the labor standards practiced in its supply chains. Chicago-based group U.S. Labor Education in the Americas Project (USLEAP), which has been active since 1987, still has letters in its files from J.C. Penney's, and other big name U.S. brands, insisting the companies had no responsibility for the factories where their products were made because they did not directly own them.

But fierce activist campaigns throughout the 1990s, especially on college campuses, forced companies to change their tune. Student activists occupied university buildings and marched in protest of their schools’ association with unethical companies and managed to both force changes and build institutions, like the WRC, to continue the fight. In 2004, economists Ann Harrison and Jason Scorse studied the effect of student activism and U.S. government pressure on the wages of Indonesians working for Nike in the 1990s and found that these efforts increased real wages by 50 percent. A 2010 follow-up in the American Economic Review found that factories targeted by anti-sweatshop activists saw the largest wage increases while Nike has responded by shifting production to other nations, like Vietnam.

Today most companies admit their responsibility, although they do little to fulfill it and disperse production so few factories manufacture goods for just one company. Almost every major company now has a code of conduct that its subcontractors are meant to adhere to and spends millions of dollar on internal inspection services to ensure they are met. (Earlier this year six large apparel companies — including Nike and Philips Van Heusen — publicly requested the Peruvian government to strengthen its labor laws, which are too weak to meet the requirements of their conduct codes.) But as WRC-founder Jill Esbenshade conclusively proves in her book "Monitoring Sweatshops," private monitoring and self-imposed codes of conduct achieve little without a source of outside enforcement. Lacking that, these efforts are often just an effort to ward off more serious attempts at regulation.

In response to concerns with working conditions abroad American trade policy labor protection provisions have improved, incrementally, over the years. President Clinton’s 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) merely included a side agreement that required adherence to local labor laws, no matter how weak, and threatened sanctions only in regards to child labor, minimum wage and health and safety violations. More recent trade agreements with Colombia, Panama, South Korea and Peru require compliance with ILO standards and make violations of these laws subject to the same punishments as, say, a breach of intellectual property rights. “American trade agreements have included successively stronger conditions to protect labor rights,” says Stephen Coats, director of USLEAP. “It’s not adequate, but it’s going in the right direction.”

The reason these improvements aren’t adequate is that there aren’t particularly effective ways to enforce them. What good are provisions for labor protections if a national government is willing to ignore or abet abuses? The United States only sporadically shows interest in enforcing its own remarkably weak labor laws, while the ILO’s labor standards are more guidelines than actual rules. Due to what Magaly Rodriguez García delicately terms "the de facto non-binding character of international labour standards," there is no punishment for those who violate them.

* * *

The anti-sweatshop movement’s greatest accomplishments have been won in the multibillion-dollar market of college apparel. Universities contract with garment companies to produce their branded apparel and students have points of leverage that are unavailable to most consumers, allowing them to more easily hold companies accountable for abuses that take place within their supply chains. Student groups like the United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS) have been able to pressure universities and colleges to force their suppliers to accept independent inspections from organizations like the Workers Rights Consortium, and make the necessary improvements (or else lose a highly lucrative dedicated market).

In 2009, for example, Russell Athletic rehired 1,200 Honduran workers who had been fired after organizing a union and agreed to allow unionization in other factories after a sustained student campaign that resulted in many university and college administrations suspending contracts with the company. No comparative arrangement exists for consumers outside the higher education sector, because they lack a direct relationship to the retail institutions where they purchase apparel and because it is much harder to organize consumers outside of a small geographic area like, say, a campus.

“It’s a situation where the consumers gave a lot of leverage and were drawn together as a community and had a relationship to the community besides just being a consumer,” says Liza Feathersone, author of "Students Against Sweatshops." “When you have a geographic community of consumers acting together to put pressure on a merchant it’s going to be a lot more effective than a dispersed group of people that can’t be seen and are just acting alone on principal.”

The student anti-sweatshop movement is still alive and well. In 2011 the PT Kizone factory in Indonesia, which manufactured Adidas products, closed suddenly and refused to pay severance to its 2,600 workers. American anti-sweatshop activists have championed the case, and on March 14 Penn State University suspended its apparel contract with Adidas.

"During this period the company is forbidden to produce any item carrying Penn State logos," a statement on the university’s web site reads. “If the period expires without resolution, the University will terminate Adidas' license to produce Penn State merchandise.” Similar campaigns are underway at other schools.

The student movement helps source a lot of university apparel business to Alta Gracia, the sole example of an entirely ethically operated factory in the developing world. Located in the Dominican Republic, the once-typical factory made products for Nike and Reebok and when the workers unionized they were fired. Now the factory produces garments for Knights Apparel, which supplies such big name American universities as Duke, Yale and UCLA. The workers are unionized, have expertly crafted safety and ergonomic standards, and are paid three times the national minimum wage.

But the vast majority of consumers, to put it mildly, are not in college and aren’t clamoring to buy Duke sweat shirts. (You can buy unadorned Alta Gracia T-shirts at EthixMerch.) For those who care about ethical labor standards, consumer choices are very limited. “There are limits to the impact we can have as consumers,” says Liana Foxvog, director of International Labor Rights Forum’s Sweat Free Communities programs. “That’s why we promote ethical alternatives and at the same time organize for sweatshop-free procurement laws [for municipal, county, and state governments]. It is great to think about where we shop, but institutional purchases, whether governments, schools, or churches have a bigger impact.”

Acting not as individual consumers but as citizens, or members of a church or a similar membership institution, allows for a more organized and effective approach because it threatens a dedicated and profitable source of corporate income. This gives activists much greater leverage to demand oversight, wage increases, organizing rights and effective safety standards. Sweat-free procurement campaigns have been successful in 40 cities, 15 counties and several state governments. On March 13, St. Louis County (Missouri) became the latest American polity to pass such a law.

But all these experts agreed that ethical individual shopping choices, while admirable, are ineffectual without a larger organizing drive to focus change efforts. Refuse to shop in conjunction with worker-led boycotts or strikes, when a company will be especially sensitive to public perception and sales losses. The current campaign to pressure Adidas makes actions against that company much more likely to succeed, particularly if other campuses follow Penn State’s lead. Individual shopping choices are good for soothing the soul, but only supporting or joining collective efforts can hope to have a practical effect.

By Jake Blumgart

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