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March 16, 2005


Yesterday, I went to a lecture about United Students Against Sweatshops--part of a series on campus activism (from the right and the left) that CIRCLE is sponsoring through the Democracy Collaborative. My professional interest is the activism, not the students' chosen issues. However, yesterday's presentation mostly concerned sweatshop labor itself. According to an analysis by the Hartford Courant, the cost of a $38 university-branded sweatshirt (like the ones sold on my campus) is distributed thus: for the store, $18.99; for the university, in logo royalties, $2.28; for the importer, $8.22; for material, $5.50; for the factory in Mexico, $2.92; for the workers, $0.18.

Confronted with that kind of statistic, we might think ...

1. Workers in Mexico must be better off getting those 18 cents than they would be without them, or they wouldn't take the job. Any effort to raise their wages beyond what the market will bear may just cost them their employment. However, if they continue to participate in a global market, their economy should grow. Consider that Japan was the first country to export clothing to the US; now it has a high standard of living.

2. It is a moral scandal that 18 cents goes to the adolescent Mexican women who cut and sew our sweatshirts, compared to $2.28 for the legal right to print the words "Fear the Turtle" on the front. However, this moral scandal can be solved basically within our current political/economic system. Workers all over the world should be able to choose to unionize, because a union can decide how much to demand in salaries, job security, and working conditions, given the constraints of the global economy. To help unions form, American consumers should be given information about the conditions under which their clothes were made. If they have a choice to pay somewhat more for better working conditions, polls show that they will. Therefore, campaigns to certify clothes as "sweatshop free" will offer advantages to unionized factories, thus causing workers' salaries to double or triple.

3. The second choice is no solution. Even tripling wages wouldn't obtain a just global distribution. Besides, if factories unionize in one country, jobs will just move to another. And if American consumers prefer unionized products, they (the consumers) will still remain dominant and won't give up real power or wealth. Instead of awareness campaigns and "sweatshop-free" labels, we need a fundamentally different international system for the allocation of capital.

I'm open to #3 if someone can show me how it would work and how we would get there. In the meantime, I'd suggest a note of caution. In 2000, China had 3.67 million textile workers who earned 40 cents an hour. In Vietnam, textile-industry wages were 22 cents an hour. These are Communist countries in which the means of production and the system of exchange were seized by revolutionary parties in the name of equality. Just a generation later, the children of those Leninist guerillas in Vietnam and those Maoist party cadres in China are making handsome profits from sweatshop labor, benefitting from their own ban on independent unions. Comparing the average wages of textile workers in China with those in Taiwan ($4.78) or Hong Kong ($4.62) provides a sense of what radical reform can cost workers if it isn't done right.

Posted by peterlevine at 9:45 AM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

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