Sweatshops are the norm in the global apparel industry. We're standing up to change that. 

2012-2015 has seen some of the largest garment industry disasters on global record: the Ali Enterprises fire in Pakistan in September 2012, the Tazreen Fashions fire in Bangladesh in November 2012, the Rana Plaza building collapse in Bangladesh in April 2013, and the Kentex factory fire in the Philippines in May 2015. Cumulatively, these horrific incidents which could have been prevented with proper implementation of legally-required health and safety measures – resulted in the deaths of approximately 1,600 garment workers in less than three years.

These catastrophes are but the latest evidence of two decades of failures of global corporations’ Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) programs in protecting workers. These programs promote voluntary and unenforceable safety and labor rights commitments, keep vital compliance information confidential, exclude workers and their organizations from monitoring and compliance activities, and often impede efforts to improve national labor justice and inspections systems (e.g., corporate auditors do not share monitoring results with labor inspectors).

Until recently corporate-controlled social auditing programs have been remarkably successful in protecting corporate reputations and brand images when faced with anti-sweatshop, fair trade, and other corporate accountability movements.  Companies have used CSR programs to claim responsible treatment of workers in the supply chain, while rejecting legal responsibility for workers’ safety or welfare, shifting it wholly to contractor factories and local governments. These programs have, in fact, contributed to the growth of a global industry founded on the idea of underpaid and disposable workers, an industry that regularly churns out poverty wages, exhausting working hours, and abusive working conditions that gradually rob workers of their health and vitality, and, sometimes, produces dramatic deadly events like fires and building collapses.

Bangladesh is the poster child for the failures of corporate-controlled social auditing. Bangladeshi garment workers are the lowest paid of any garment workers in the world, earning a minimum wage which, after the latest increase, is no more than US$68 per month.  Low wages are compounded by the near absence of a social safety net and the minimal compensation for a worker who dies or is injured at work. Building and fire safety standards in the factories are notoriously poor, resulting in preventable worker deaths and injuries with alarming regularity. And workers’ efforts to organize for better conditions and higher wages are often violently repressed by police, security forces, and hired thugs.

Following the recent factory fires and building collapse in Bangladesh, the failures of corporate-controlled social auditing have been exposed and debated like rarely before in the mainstream media.  The credibility of most major corporations on worker safety and labor rights is now at a low point, while ILRF and allied organizations have gained increased legitimacy as a voice for sensible solutions. The crisis for garment workers and the gravity of the publicly exposed failures of corporate-controlled social auditing practices have created a new political and cultural space that allows us to imagine and work towards a new labor rights compliance model that would have had little public legitimacy a year ago.  Our demands are now achievable.  

In this moment—the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory moment of our time—using public education, policy advocacy, and communications strategies, we can support workers’ rights to organize and bargain collectively through winning demands that:

  • Apparel brands and retailers sign contracts with global and national trade unions, requiring them to work with their suppliers to remediate violations and ensure safe and decent working conditions; and
  • Government adopts enforceable requirements for transparency and labor rights protections in supply chains.

Advancing this new vision for corporate accountability will benefit greatly from the success of the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, which ILRF and our allies helped develop and to which we are a witness signatory. The Accord is a groundbreaking, legally-binding agreement between Bangladeshi and global unions and more than 200 apparel companies, under which the companies make a binding contractual commitment to ensure workers’ safety.

We are currently seeing more media, government, and public attention on the garment industry since sweatshop issues hit the front pages in the 1990s, and we are seizing this historic opportunity to redefine corporate accountability in a way that will ultimately also impact workers outside of Bangladesh as well as beyond the garment industry.

SweatFree Communities, a program of ILRF, supports sweatshop workers globally in their struggles to improve working conditions and form strong, independent unions.

In 2003, grassroots organizations in Maine, Minnesota, New York, Washington, and Wisconsin created SweatFree Communities (SFC).  Each group had been successful—through mostly volunteer efforts—in promoting groundbreaking new procurement policies to ensure our state and local governments, using our tax dollars, were not buying uniforms and other clothing made in sweatshops.  Just ten years later, seven states, 44 cities, 16 counties, 118 school districts, and one nationwide religious denomination have adopted such “sweatfree” policies.  SFC coordinates these local campaigns; maintains resources for education and policy development; conducts research on supply chain transparency and the working conditions in government supplier factories; and coordinates educational forums for government officials.

At the same time, SFC has worked with leading government agencies to form the Sweatfree Purchasing Consortium (est. May 2010), a membership organization for governments to help them act with combined strength and transparency in meeting their goals for sweatshop-free purchasing. The Consortium provides expertise and pools resources to monitor working conditions and enforce “sweatfree” standards.  The Consortium’s goal is to change the rules of competition to favor not businesses that produce the cheapest possible goods at the expense of workers, but those that offer good value while operating transparently, providing humane working conditions, and valuing workers' human and labor rights.

In 2010, SweatFree Communities joined forces with the International Labor Rights Forum, becoming an ILRF campaign and beginning a new collaboration to strengthen our advocacy efforts to create a sweatfree world.

SweatFree Communities is an exciting and positive approach in the international worker rights movement.  Campaigns for sweatfree procurement policies foster sustained local activism and strong coalitions of labor, student, solidarity, peace and justice, and faith-based groups.  Local campaigns attract new people to social activism, channeling their outrage about sweatshops into engagement with local institutions.  New movement leaders emerge from local campaigns as graduating high school activists take leadership roles in the university anti-sweatshop movement and other organizations.  These innovative campaigns allow community activists to control the shape and timing of their own efforts, in coordination with other local campaigns.  Because most localities include multiple entities that purchase goods and services -- for example, the city, the county, the school district, and the state -- one successful campaign can provide momentum for another.  As a local issue in which elected officials have to take positions, these campaigns also offer significant possibilities for press coverage and public education.  Using institutional purchasing as a lever for worker justice, the sweatfree movement ultimately empowers ordinary people to create a just global economy through local action.