Saturday, July 04, 2009

Reviving the anti-sweatshop movement

“Nearly 20 years of anti-sweatshop activism has come to naught,” says a veteran campaigner against sweatshops, Jeff Ballinger. He contends, therefore, that it is urgent to try a new, more effective, strategy.

In the lead article of Dissent magazine’s summer issue, Ballinger lays out his thoughts on such a strategy. The article's title: “Finding an Anti-Sweatshop Strategy That Works.”

As an illustration of the anti-sweatshop movement’s failure, he cites a who-got-how-much breakdown of the $38 price of hoodie sold in the University of Connecticut bookstore a couple of years ago. Out of that $38, the workers in Mexico who produced it received a meager l8 cents. “The workers’ share could hardly have been lower when the movement began,” writes Ballinger, who himself helped create the movement.

From his own experience working with workers in the United States and Asia, he is convinced that to get rid of sweatshops, you have to start by helping workers “empower” themselves – get them involved in learning the facts of their vulnerable situation and the way to do something about it.

How to help under current circumstances? In Ballinger’s view, “fighting sweatshop abuses here and abroad will not be key policy undertakings of Barack Obama and his team.” He presumably means that strong anti-sweatshop legislation may get sidetracked by other priorities, such as battling for health care and financial reforms.

But even so, Ballinger insists, the executive branch has available a wide set of initiatives that it could take on its own – initiatives that “would at least begin an assault on global sweatshop practices.” That beginning should be launched by President Obama himself: “Addressing the rule of law as applied to the workplace ought to be a slam-dunk for the President and the recently re-energized State Department.”

Among the specific initiatives that Ballinger proposes for a “no-nonsense strategy” are these:

-- Expand the Bush administration’s “Trafficking in Persons” program to include workers lured to leave their Asian home countries for sweatshop jobs elsewhere in Asia.
-- Be sure to connect with real labor activists, in Asia and Central America especially.
-- Have AID missions adopt “worker empowerment” projects, such as those that involve workers themselves in using survey-research tools to gather information useful to local legal aid groups as well as to unions.
-- Have U.S. Embassies gather labor and environmental information in a more focused and systematic way, for example, by reporting meaningful details on enforcement by labor inspections.
-- In addition to raw data, gather wiki-style narratives on recent strikes, the human effect of sub-par wages, outright wage-cheating, and other pressing issues, as well as local academic papers on these issues.
-- Share information on these subjects with U.S. corporations that contract out work to local factories and offices.

Ballinger is currently finishing up work on a PhD degree, aided by a grant from the Laborers International Union. For the full text of Ballinger’s article, click here.

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