Worker Poverty in Sweat Shopping

Ideas and Issues Labor Organizing

cambodian garment factory workersNew Orleans               An article by Ken Silverstein in Harper’s Magazine in the January 2010 issue labeled a “letter from Cambodia” and entitled “Shopping for Sweat:  The Human Cost of a Two-Dollar T-shirt” caught by eye immediately because of the controversy around Jeff Ballinger’s critique on the infinitesimally small progress that workers have made after years of anti-sweatshop organizing.  Additionally, since the story line was Cambodia, I knew this was an area where my colleague and friend, Jason Judd, had organized garment worker unions when he was with the AFL-CIO Solidarity Center a couple of years ago. 

            On unions Silverstein writes:  “Labor unions are abundant, but most are funded and controlled by employers or the government, and independent activists have been fired, suspended, sued, and otherwise targeted for repression.” 

            On pay Silverstein writes two things:  first, that based on a 2008 survey pay has “stagnated…at 33 cents an hour, lower than anywhere but Bangladesh,” and, secondly, that the monthly minimum wage was $45 USD in 2000 and is now $56 while buying power has been cut by 37% due to inflation.

            On monitoring and the sham that corporate social irresponsibility is foisting off on the consumer:  “Since then, an entire monitoring industry has emerged:  a profusion of auditing firms, consulting companies, NGOs…that apparel makers pay handsomely to develop monitoring tools, offer advice, and write up countless glossy reports.  For workers at apparel plants, though, the benefits have proved elusive.  A recent study…reviewed Nike’s own data and found that conditions had ‘stagnated or deteriorated’ at 78% of company’s supplier factories between 1998 and 2005.”  He adds, “…since the apparel companies’ dues pay for the monitoring firms that inspect their plants, they tend to get the lax policing that they want.”

            The article is scathing in its criticism of the International Labor Organization and its so-called “Better Factories” program labeling it a “whitewash.”

            By the end of the article I was willing to take a vow never to read Nicholas Kristof and his neo-liberal proselytizing again, which I have largely done already, since his paternalistic, hectoring tone tends to obscure his concerns anyway.  I was also encouraged to find a lengthy quote from Jeff Ballinger as well saying that today unfortunately there is “no fundamental difference in the way factories are run, because you still have the same predatory model of outsourcing.”

            A proposal that apparel workers receive nothing less than $5 USD per day and then go up by $1 USD per day is interesting, but given that the results of a huge, powerful, and seemingly effective social movement to end sweatshops and their goods in the US market has been so compromised, diluted, and now rendered impotent, by the end of the article, that seemed only a curiosity insisted on by some Harper’s editor hoping to have something in this long piece that was marginally upbeat, rather than debilitating and depressing.