Vol. IV, Bulletin No. 2. January 22, 1999
Pressures Mounting on Sweatshops
>18 U.S. Firms Sued for Indentured Labor on U.S. Island
As never before, 18 high-profile U.S. clothing retailers and manufacturers are in legal trouble for doing business with sweatshops. Unprecedented lawsuits filed Jan. 13 are seeking to hold the companies responsible for the labor practices of their foreign contractors on U.S. soil. The American firms are being sued for $1 billion in damages on charges of engaging in a "racketeering conspiracy" using over 50,000 workers, mostly Asian women, in indentured servitude to produce "made-in-America" clothing in contractor-run factories on the Pacific island of Saipan.
The Asian women--from China, the Philippines, Bangladesh, and Thailand--were brought to Saipan (which is exempt from U.S. immigration laws) with promises of good pay and a good life. Instead, according to two federal class action suits and a companion suit filed in California state court, the women found themselves working up to 12 hours a day, seven days a week, and often "off the clock" without receiving any pay for overtime.Among the 18 U.S. companies sued, The Gap (Banana Republic and Old Navy), Wal-Mart, Dayton-Hudson Corp. (Target, Mervyn's, Marshall Fields), and the Limited Inc. are major exporters of garments from Saipan, according to one of the lawsuits.The Gap Has Code of Conduct Posted, But Only in English, Worker Says
Carmencita Abad, a former garment worker from the Philippines who worked on Saipan for six years, told a New York news conference that many workers pay as much as $7,000 to recruiters to get the job, often live eight to a room, routinely earn less than Saipan's $3.15 hourly minimum, and must buy bug-infested food from the contractors who run the factories.
"This abuse occurs while U.S. retailers watch," she said. "I have seen many times the Gap inspector come into the factory, look at the garments, then turn and walk out the door." The retailer's code of conduct is posted, she said, but only in English, which the Chinese cannot read. Later, in a statement, Gap said that it "does not tolerate this type of conduct in the factories where we do business."
"Unfortunately, slavery and indentured servitude is alive and well in many parts of the world, including the United States," said one of the lead attorneys in the case, William S. Lerach. His law firm, which specializes in class action suits, recently negotiated a $1.2 billion settlement with Swiss banks as reimbursement to surviving families and victims of the Holocaust, and is currently seeking compensation for Holocaust victims forced to work as slave laborers in factories.For more information, check Sweatshop Watch, which lists the 18 companies being sued. Also it is worth tracking down some of the 800 numbers of the firms listed and learning what they have to say.>Grassroots Movement Arises from College Campuses
College Students Rallying Against SweatshopsThe baseball caps, bearing the University's own logo, are sold at the campus bookstore for $19.95 each. They are made in a Dominican Republic sweatshop by women who get 8 cents per hat. For the use of its name, the University (apart from the bookstore) collects $1.50 per hat.Caps, jackets, sweatshirts, T-shirts, gym bags, and other athletic products emblazoned with university names or logos generate $2.5 billion in retail sales every year. How many of these collegiate goods are made in sweatshops?
Students in some 50 colleges across the country want to know. The evidence so far shocks them. The baseball caps sold on campus, for example, are made in the Dominican Republic in factories that are typical sweatshops: teenage girls and young women work illegally long hours for low pay, are denied the right to join a union, and must endure the abusive supervision of Korean managers.
Duke University Model Not Being Emulated
In a breakthrough last March students at Duke University, organized as Students Against Sweatshops, persuaded their university to adopt a comprehensive code of conduct to insure that Duke's products would not be stained by sweatshop labor. One of the code's most significant provisions is an enforcement procedure with a "sunshine" provision that requires licensees to disclose the names and locations of factories making items with the Duke symbol.
Since then the Collegiate Licensing Company (CLC), which is an intermediary between the manufacturers and about 200 schools, has drafted a proposal for a uniform code to cover all the schools. Meanwhile, a nation-wide collegiate coalition, the United Students Against Sweatshops, has been pressing for a standard code that measures up to Duke's. The CLC draft released in December falls short."This code is a sham," says Todd Pugatch, a University of North Carolina student. One of its major weaknesses: it omits Duke's "sunshine" provision. Says Snehal Patel, a Duke student: "Corporations have pressured Duke and other universities to reduce the CLC code to a little more than a few scribbles advocating secrecy of sweatshop conditions."With January 30 as the deadline for comment from member schools, the proposed code is under heightened scrutiny this month. Opposition to a code without adequate enforcement is fueled by new information (such as from Saipan, above) showing that weak codes of conduct are useless except as PR cover-ups.For background, check the Website of the United Students Against Sweatshops and an article, "The Growing Global Solidarity Movement."Soros: Global Markets Urgently Need New Rules
To succeed big in the financial markets, it's best to put your conscience on hold. At least that's the seasoned view of George Soros, a fabled money-manager who should know whereof he speaks.
In his new book, "The Crisis of Global Capitalism," Soros clearly characterizes financial markets as amoral. World-girdling financial markets provide participants a cover of anonymity that lets them easily ignore moral issues, Soros writes, drawing on his own experience:"As an anonymous participant in financial markets, I never had to weigh the social consequences of my actions....If I had to deal with people instead of markets, I could not have avoided moral choices and I could not have been so successful in making money. I blessed the luck that led me to the financial markets and allowed me not to dirty my hands. The fact remains that anonymous market participants are largely exempt from moral choices as long as they play by the [market's own limited] rules."Soros explains how, for any person (or any institution) involved in financial markets:"...morality can become an encumbrance. In a highly competitive environment, people weighed down by a concern for others are liable to do less well than those who are free of all moral scruples. In this way, social values undergo what may be described as a process of adverse natural selection. The unscrupulous come out on top. This is one of the most disturbing aspects of the global capitalist system."How Global Capitalism Is Seriously Imperiled
That system, Soros flatly predicts, faces "imminent disintegration" for two major reasons:
Soros might be exaggerating the immediate dangers, but he builds his critique on first-hand knowledge and makes recommendations that deserve the attention of policymakers. Moreover, he is right on the mark with statements such as the following: "To understand how the current global capitalist regime differs from previous regimes, we must recognize the growing role of money as an intrinsic value....Money rules people's lives to a greater extent than ever before."
- The inherent instability of international financial markets has increased with the freer and broader movement of capital in the past 20 years.
- The inability or unwillingness of public authorities, national or international, to adopt and implement rules and institutions to control chaotic financial markets.The winter 1998-99 issue of Foreign Policy has an article titled "Capitalism's Last Chance?" by George Soros. For excerpts, see the magazine's Website at http://www.foreignpolicy.com/soros.com.
The Ability to Make Money In Vietnam"People outside [of Vietnam] hear about the new market economy and forget that Vietnam is a police state. They think that the ability to make money means we are free."Those are comments that Dr. Nguyen Dan Que of Vietnam, a pro-democracy activist released from prison in September, made to a Bangkok-based Time reporter, Tim Larimer, who interviewed him in Saigon a few weeks ago. Larimer's article, unfortunately published only in the magazine's January 15 Asia edition, was subtitled "Vietnam's Communist government is expert at silencing dissent, but voices of dissatisfaction are growing louder."
Larimer cites examples of how tightly a "pervasive security apparatus" maintains Communist Party controls throughout Vietnam. Newsstands are crammed with publications, but "appearances deceive," Larimer points out. Several Internet cafes opened recently, but before long police raided one and carted the computer and monitor away.
Also, waiting for Larimer when he arrived at Que's home were some uninvited guests: four grim-faced security officials, plus a uninformed policeman who stayed in an adjacent room during part of the interview. A major concern voiced by Que: the United States should keep up pressure on Hanoi to release all political prisoners.
Human Rights for Workers: Bulletin No. IV-2, January 22, 1999
Robert A. Senser, editor
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