Sweatshops Alive and Well

Financial Justice International

sweatshopNew Orleans In the prevailing wisdom and the back pats that we like to sometimes hope are well earned and deserved, in speaking with students on university campuses about organizing chapters to support ACORN International’s organizing in various countries I have occasionally used cited the effectiveness of the anti-sweatshop movement as exhibit one for why all of this makes sense and matters.  A series of recent emails from Jeff Ballinger and several conversations have forced me to step back and swallow that example.

I have a lot of respect for Ballinger that dates to the time the Organizers’ Forum delegation visited Indonesia several years ago and heard the stories of his expulsion for too aggressively doing his job with the AFL-CIO’s Solidarity Center and insisting on US and other companies paying fair wages in just conditions.  Nothing in subsequent visits every did anything but add to his reputation.

After his expulsion he fought a long campaign to bring accountability particularly to Nike, the giant shoe and sportswear company.  For a 5+ year period in the 90’s the anti-sweatshop movement on campuses and broadly had the company on the ropes with 40% declines in sales and stock pricing.  Clearly, as organizers we know that is the time when leverage for victory would have been the highest, but alas….

The opening of a piece Jeff sent me from Summer 09 Dissent summarizes the situation now painfully:

“That nearly twenty years of anti-sweatshop activism has come to naught is suggested by the cost breakdown of a $37.99 University of Connecticut hoodie that appeared in the Hartford Courant a couple of years ago:  the workers received a mere 18 cents, while the university received $2.28 in licensing fees. (Mexican factor:  profit, 70 cents; overhead, $2.12, material, $5.50 – importer [Champion]: overhead, $5.10; profit, $1.75 – retailer [UCONN Co-op]: overhead, $14.49; profit, $4.50).  Use of the log was 80 cents, and the royalty to the National Collegiate Athletic Association was 57 cents.  The workers’ share could hardly have been lower when the movement began.”

It’s hard to even imagine an excuse for 18 cents for the workers, because there’s no reason for this.  Ballinger gives the credit to slick public relations work done by Nike and similar companies pretending to embrace “corporate social responsibility” or CSR.  More painfully has I talked to him and read his emails, was the feeling that too many non-profits here and around the globe had effectively sold out the workers as they “partnered” with corporations in these CSR schemes.

Elsewhere Ballinger does a back of the envelope calculations that makes it clearer since Nike might have spent $220 million on raising wage standards for its subcontractors in Indonesia and elsewhere, but the CSR program hardly cost 10% of that with a price tag of $25 million.  Ouch!

These have been unsettling conversations because a 3rd stage of the campaign, especially when so many of us have been lured into hoping and believing progress had been made, will no doubt be a harder sell and a steeper climb.  Not that there is a choice.  18 cents for workers is immoral and unacceptable!