Sweating the Sweatshop Movement

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image by Reuters / Sukree Sukplang

Not so long ago, the anti-sweatshop movement was a cause célèbre among activists across political lines and demographic categories. As the new administration embarks on a more inclusive foreign policy agenda, though, the issue has faded from the headlines. And unless some celebrity’s clothing line is outed for relying on underpaid and mistreated minors (à la Kathie Lee Gifford’s), it’s hard to imagine that the mainstream media will get interested. Never mind the fact that after nearly two decades of protest, anti-sweatshop activists are still losing the global fight to curb unjust wage practices and corporate human rights abuses.

In an opinion piece for Dissent (Summer 2009), Jeff Ballinger, a longtime worker rights advocate, acknowledges that President Obama has plenty of pressing matters on his plate. But he believes that the administration could incorporate the issue seamlessly into its foreign agenda.

“Tweaking our foreign assistance priorities, revising ‘democracy promotion,’ and undertaking diplomacy from a community organizer’s perspective–these changes in U.S. policy would at least begin an assault on global sweatshop practices,” he writes. “And they are especially important as an antidote to the solipsism of corporate social responsibility, wherein corporate ‘self-regulation’ teams are rebranded as ‘activists’ by lazy and compliant media. The new administration needs to connect with real labor activists, in Asia and Central America especially, and allow them to speak for themselves.”

Even in the movement, both misinformation and a lack of information are hindrances to progress. Without accurate documentation of sweatshop practices or a way to transfer that knowledge to the labor activists who need it most, it’s hard to expect change. Ballinger offers two solutions: “First, look for ’empowering’ projects to assist workers directly in local struggles and, second, use survey-research tools to build a database available to local legal aid groups and labor activists.”

Finally, Ballinger says, the United States should apply the same sort of stringent standards it applies to nations with nuclear capabilities to those that control major export-processing zones. This stance would not likely sit well with countries like China and Bangladesh, but Ballinger believes it’s time to send a clear policy signal.

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