Rocky Shoes sweatshop abuses shed light on failed trade model

Unrest at footwear factory exposes consequences of NAFTA-style trade deals as presidential candidates make appeals to displaced Ohio manufacturing workers

Human rights and labor organizations in Ohio today called on presidential candidates and Governor Ted Strickland to adopt “sweatfree” purchasing policies to stop tax dollar support for sweatshop abuses that have sent thousands of Ohio jobs overseas. The call comes as the groups exposed workplace abuses in a Rocky Shoes-contracted facility in China, where as many as 4000 workers went on strike last month to protest non-payment of wages.

Rocky Shoes & Boots, based in Nelsonville, shut down its unionized manufacturing plant there in 2001. The company, which sells shoes and boots to government departments for municipal employees, postal service workers, and the military, now manufactures the majority of its products in China and the Dominican Republic, paying workers a fraction of the wages they used to pay in Nelsonville.

Reports from Chinese newspapers indicate that as many as 4000 workers at the Quan Tak factory in Guangzhou went on strike to recover unpaid overtime wages going as far back as 2002. Employees often work 15 hours a day, seven days a week, for as little as $5 a day. Workers also said that they are trained to deceive monitors that Quan Tak corporate clients send to inspect workplace conditions and that workers who led efforts to improve conditions were fired.

“These used to be good Ohio jobs,” said Wanda Taylor, who made shoes in the Nelsonville factory for 25 years and served as the president of UNITE local 146SW. “Now we know the consequences of NAFTA-style trade agreements: Ohio workers lose their jobs, and overseas workers are forced to work without pay. It's a lose-lose situation that's got to change.”

The human rights and labor organizations today said that their expectation is that when problems like these arise in factories that produce goods for Rocky Shoes in China, the Dominican Republic, or elsewhere, the company will ensure that the problems are fixed and working conditions improve, rather than abandon the factories in question.

To address ongoing problems, the emerging State and Local Government Sweatfree Consortium will pool resources of state and local governments and school districts for independent investigations of working conditions in common supplier factories, and consolidate government purchasing power in factories where workers are treated with dignity and respect. The goal of the Consortium is to create a significant market for good working conditions that will benefit workers both in Ohio and overseas. The States of New York, Pennsylvania, and Maine are currently leading the Consortium effort.

“Ohio voters want to know that our next president will put an end to the type of trade deals that have made life harder for American workers and workers overseas,” said Karen Hansen of the Ohio Conference on Fair Trade. “If Senators Clinton and Obama stand by their statements to end NAFTA-style trade deals, then they'll endorse the Sweatfree Consortium. Our tax dollars should not be spent on shoes and boots that are made in sweatshops.”

“Governor Strickland can be a leader by joining other cities and states that have committed to the Sweatfree Consortium,” said Victoria Kaplan, Midwest regional organizer for SweatFree Communities. “Before he was Ohio's chief executive, Governor Strickland represented the people of Nelsonville in Congress. He should know better than anyone how important it is to stand up for good jobs.”

Translations of Chinese newspaper articles on the strike at Rocky Shoes supplier Quan Tak are available at

SweatFree Communities coordinates a national network of grassroots campaigns that promote humane working conditions in apparel and other labor-intensive global industries by working with both public and religious institutions to adopt sweatshop-free purchasing policies. Using institutional purchasing as a lever for worker justice, the sweatfree movement empowers ordinary people to creat a just global economy through local action. Learn more at

The Ohio Conference on Fair Trade is a statewide coalition of faith, labor, environmental, family farm, community and social justice organizations advocating for fair and just trade policies. Learn more at

UNITE HERE is a labor union representing 450,000 workers in the garment, apparel, laundry, hotel, restaurant, and gaming, industries in the United States, Canada, and Puerto Rico. Learn more at

The State and Local Government Sweatfree Consortium, comprised of states, cities, counties, local government agencies, and school districts, as well as human rights advocates and labor rights experts, will pool resources of public entities to investigate working conditions in factories that make uniforms and other products for public employees. Cities and states will hold vendors to the same standards, use the same independent monitor for enforcement, and create a market large enough to persuade companies to deal responsibly and ethically with their suppliers and workers. Learn more at