Ethical Clothing: We Can Do Better to Stop Worker Abuse

By Daniel Cardozo

When it comes to clothing manufacturing, sweatshops are nothing new. And neither are consumer organizations rising up to protest against the appalling conditions workers are subjected to. Nearly 25 years ago, organizations like United Students Against Sweatshops, the Worker Rights Consortium, the International Labor Rights Forum, and the Clean Clothes Campaign stood out as titans of justice. Those were heady times. To me and others who became motivated to “do something” about this untenable state of affairs, there was reason for hope.

An entire generation of activists cut their teeth on what became known as the “anti-sweatshop movement.” These student and consumer-led groups were exposing major global apparel brands for their shoddy and shameful labor practices that left workers in the Global South systematically exploited and legions of their counterparts in the industrialized world out of a job. Countless articles and books have been written. Boycotts have been launched. Isolated victories have been won. But sadly, a quarter of a century later, not much has changed.

Consumers didn’t know or didn’t care that the clothes on their backs were being produced by a workforce experiencing wage theft, forced labor and overtime, child labor, sexual exploitation, poverty wages and factory doors barred from the outside during work hours. Nike, Gap and the rest of the pioneers of garment industry globalization saw that they could continue their new and lucrative business model with little consumer interference.

In 2019, despite the rise in social media and consumer expectations of business, the evidence suggests that the global apparel brands have mostly succeeded in preserving their exploitive business model. Now, as then, these brands have relied on a complex supply chain of subcontractors, and sub-subcontractors to wash their hands of responsibility for sweatshop conditions in the garment industry. Not to be accused of sitting on their hands, these brands (frustratingly, with the initial assistance of the Clinton administration) erected an oversight structure that is created and influenced predominantly by the brands themselves.

Codes of conducts, audits, and “corporate social responsibility” initiatives have all been instituted, all of which provides a convenient smokescreen for the persistent abuses which, decades later, appear to have lost much of their shock value to the average consumer. Remember the horrific 2014 collapse of Rana Plaza in Bangladesh that resulted in the deaths of more than 1,000 workers? That shocking incident pierced the general complacency – but only for a short time. And what of the millions of workers, day in and day out, who remain trapped in the cycle of poverty and who suffer daily, anonymous abuses and humiliations?

It’s a familiar story. Deregulation, with the promise of trickle-down prosperity, has led to systematic inequality, with the benefits of globalization accruing to a small handful of businesspeople and shareholders, on either side of whatever ocean is being crossed with imported goods produced with the world’s cheapest possible labor.

A new report by one of those titans of justice, the Clean Clothes Campaign, sheds light on the “social auditing” structure that consumers are being asked to put their faith in, so that they may continue to purchase cheap apparel with a clean conscience. The 100 page report, entitled “Fig Leaf for Fashion,” describes an auditing system that has itself become a multi-billion dollar industry. As the report concludes:

By relying on inadequate methodologies which produce flawed, unverifiable outcomes, these audits provide false reassurances around worker safety and deflect attention away from the underlying mechanisms and power imbalances (price pressure, time pressure, payment terms, etc.) within brands’ supply chains, which often contribute to the violations rather than preventing or mitigating them.”

As the report demonstrates throughout, allowing the foxes to police the hen house, unsurprisingly, doesn’t solve the fundamental problem at the root of globalized exploitation of cheap labor – that the brands themselves create the inevitability of abuse through the prices and turnaround times that they demand from subcontracted facilities.

With all of the money being spent to audit their own practices, one would think the brands would be eager to release the results to the public. (“You see! Things are improving!”) The audits, however, are never released to the public. And thus, consumer groups and genuinely independent human rights watchdogs are prevented from doing their own independent verification of the supposedly glowing reviews of garment factories.

With apparel companies continuing to win over the hearts and minds of consumers through glossy and well-funded (but ultimately meaningless) corporate responsibility efforts, it’s up to the anti-sweatshop movement to find new and creative ways of galvanizing outrage and convincing the public that only laws — enforceable and applied across borders — have the power to stem the tide of fragrant abuses perpetrated against the human beings involved in apparel production.

If you would like to become involved and begin to make a difference, donate today to the International Labor Rights Forum. For the full report, “Fig Leaf for Fashion,” visit the Clean Clothes Campaign website.

Daniel Cardozo is a long-time worker justice activist dating back to his student days at Berkeley. He is a member of the Labor 411 Foundation and the CEO of Ethix Merch, which prides itself in sourcing its products through socially responsible companies.

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