Ending Sweatshop Labor
Date of publication: February 6, 2006
Source: Bangor Daily News
By Sean Donahue
Last June I met with workers from a factory in the Las Mercedes Free Trade Zone in Managua that produces Faded Glory jeans for Wal-Mart. Many had just been fired for taking part in a strike demanding that the company meet its promises to its workers.
For months, paychecks had been arriving late - a serious problem for workers who were barely making enough money to feed themselves and get themselves to and from work. Worse yet, the company had been pocketing the money that was supposed to pay for workers' health care. And workers were routinely forced to meet unrealistic production quotas thatleft them working overtime without additional pay.
Wal-Mart's Supplier Agreement requires factories to compensate workers fairly for their work, guarantees workers the freedom to organize, and prohibits forced overtime. Nicaraguan law makes the same guarantees. But workers claimed the company kept two sets of books - one for company and government inspectors and one for internal use. And inspectors rarely if ever talked with workers outside the factory where they could safely report what was really going on.
The Washington-based International Labor Rights Fund claims that Wal-Mart routinely fails to meet its own standards, and has filed a class action suit against the company for breaching its contracts with workers on four continents. Three of those workers, including one from the factory I visited in Nicaragua, will be speaking in Bangor at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 7 at the Unitarian-Universalist Church at 170 Park St.
The problem isn't unique to Wal-Mart. In a March 2004 report on companies making sportswear being sold in conjunction with the Olympics, Oxfam found that "Companies' promises to behave responsibly are ignored by company buying teams who use cut-throat tactics to bring products to shop-shelves at cheaper prices, at a quicker rate and with more flexibility."
While denying the workers' charges, the one of the managers at the factory in Managua admitted that he was under enormous pressure to keep production high and prices low. Even though Nicaragua has the lowest wages in Central America - workers make less than $15 a week - labor is even cheaper in China. The manager said "Sooner or later someone is going to have to put an end to this. And that someone is going to have to be at the purchasing end."
One of the best ways to effect change in the industry is to harness the purchasing power of governments and other big institutions and use that power to demand a higher standard. Thanks to the work of a broad-based coalition of unions, community groups, and small businesses, Maine led the nation by passing the nation's first anti-sweatshop purchasing law in 2001, requiring companies selling clothing and apparel to the state government to certify that the factories they use meet basic workers' rights standards set out in international treaties.
Now, working with that same coalition, Sen. Peggy Rotundo had introduced a new bill - LD 1769 - An Act to Strengthen Maine's Purchasing Code of Conduct - which would give the Division of Purchases the tools it needs to enforce the law by establishing a process for workers and human rights organizations to report violations of the Code of Conduct by companies supplying clothing to the state. LD 1769 also establishes a commission to investigate how Maine can work with other states to use independent monitors to investigate contractors' alleged human rights violations.
Besides allowing the state to find our which companies aren't treating their workers fairly, LD 1769 would help to channel money to companies that are working hard to do the right thing, giving them the business they need to be able to produce on a large enough scale to improve their efficiency and lower their prices. Bangor-bases SweatFree Communities is working to promote similar initiatives nationwide.
Sweatshop labor remains the norm in the apparel industry. That will not change until large purchasers begin demanding real evidence that the companies they do business with are only contracting with factories that treat their workers fairly.
LD 1769 takes Maine a step forward in that direction, and paves the way for other states to follow suit - just as California, New Jersey, Illinois, New York, and Pennsylvania followed Maine's example in passing the first generation of sweat-free purchasing laws over the past five years. Someone at the purchasing end does need to the lead in putting an end to sweatshop labor. That someone is us.
Sean Donahue lives in Bangor and is the director of PICA (Peace through Inter-American Community Action). He can be reached at email@example.com.