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“The biggest myth of all time is that sweatshops are bad. Sweatshops for emerging economies are for workers with no skills.”—Fox News co-host Greg Gutfeld
I want to say: Buy nothing. However, this . . .
Idea of purchasing nothing is a privileged act. It is an act that at once acknowledges a purchasing power and for many Americans, and without any argument billions across the world, the consumer power they wield is zero; they cannot invest in an act of buying nothing, because for them that is an everyday reality. While I am a struggling, working class student, I am still able to buy myself a meal now and again, that under-priced shirt or bow-tie that is inevitably the byproduct of cheapened labor from an overseas location; I am nonetheless in a space of privilege. In recognition of this, I choose to not only consume nothing tomorrow, but partake in a larger project that seeks to challenge this violence, and neglect of labor within my own space, and overseas—for these spaces, and their politics are inextricably linked. This is about consciousness, and an understanding of the politics of labor.
why i dont care about sweatshops
someone once asked me why i can, for all my liberal leftism, support stores that employ sweatshop labor without batting an eyelash. its pretty simple: while the existence of sweatshops is sad and unfair, i really dont care about them or boycotts.
i go to the univ of texas, a school with one of the best overall sports programs in the nation. there is more UT related paraphernalia sold than any other university (hats, tshirts, clothes in general, etc). it has come to light that some of the retailers of UT paraphernalia (such as the univ co-op, a 2 story business across the street from the school which sells all things UT) purchase clothing that is made in sweatshops. a bunch of activists around campus, including some friends of mine, created or participate in Texas Students Against Sweatshops, which urges UT to sign onto a company (WRC) that monitors the labor practices of the firms that produced UT merchandise, and to reject the current monitoring company (FLA) which allows firms to monitor themselves. here is an overview of the issue. whenever they ask me to come with them to a rally or to a press conference, i politely decline.
i am using this example to discuss my increased alienation with left leaning activists, particularly those in the developed world who have well-intentions for their Southern neighbors. things are never as simple as they seem, and it is quite easy to underestimate the easy by which agency can be co-opted by a group of people who think they have it all figured out, or who are idealistic enough to think that everything can turn out okay.
i dont support sweatshop boycotts. understandably, if you read the article i linked, perhaps UT switching to another firm that monitors labor practices would be somewhat helpful. but ‘helpful’ does not mean it will change the reality of what sweatshop workers endure, nor does ‘helpful’ validate very capitalist first world methodologies of activism.
i dont think there is, on balance, something ‘wrong’ with the incidence of sweatshops. i think there is something wrong with the incidences of capitalism that lead to sweatshops, the structural conditions, more than the actual sweatshop itself. i also don’t accept the argument that sweatshops are essential because how else would garment workers in bangladesh and assembly line workers in china have a job.
regardless of what corporation someone is boycotting, sweatshop boycotts are generally for the delicate feelings of the consumer who are upset that their clothing is made by 10 year old filipino girls in free trade zones working 70 hours a week. understandably this riles up emotions and sentiment to prevent such injustice, but this model of activism also naturalizes some pretty bad things.
Sweatshop boycotts almost always lack the direct participation of the people they aim to protect. Most surveys and accounts of people who go into sweatshops reveal that boycotts are undesirable for workers, because they threaten job security. The workers would like consumers to continue buying clothing from the GAP, but they also want better working wages and labor conditions. Boycotts do not change labor conditions. Very few incidences- if any- have actually changed the labor conditions of the people involved. The main issue is that boycotts undermine the agency of workers and the factors influencing their labor conditions and their ability to organize.
This article from Workers’ Liberty puts together a lot of things I’ve read about the problem with anti-sweatshop movements. According to researcher Ethel Brooks, there are three main critiques of anti-sweatshop campaigns:
Firstly, that they are oriented to US consumers who are presented as having the power to fight sweatshop labour through their consumption decisions, thus detracting from the agency of the workers and the centrality of production relations, reducing the action to pressure on the corporations and letting people think they are accomplishing something when they shop. She also points out that the consequences (for example, of the US law boycotting Bangladeshi products made with child labour) may be bad for the workers involved.Secondly, such campaigns often paint sweatshop production as something apart from the normal operation of global capital, so that the owners of the US brands can say they didn’t know about the conditions in their subcontractors’ factories or that certain firms are bad employers. Brooks details the case of Kathie Lee Gifford, who used the exposure of some of her suppliers to claim the moral high ground through a televised “confession” and expression of regret which allowed her company to carry on business as usual.
Thirdly, she claims that such campaigns go over the heads of the workers involved. One aspect of this is that agreements are signed around issues such as independent monitoring of subcontractors without the consent of the workers. Another criticism is that such campaigns are controlled by activists who present particular identities and information as the basis for campaigning, ignoring the multiple identities of women garment workers as “classed, gendered, racialised”.
What we have, in anti-sweatshop campaigns, is a brand of activism that only benefits the well-intentioned liberal activists who are assured that they have done their Good Deed of the Day by consuming ethically, a very very problematic paradigm. How can a problem rooted in the modes of production find a solution that arises from the illusion of consumer agency? Most of us cling to this idea, that we, as consumers, are empowered people who can change the world by choosing products that are produced more humanely. People in the first world suffer from something called consumer fetishism, in which we mistake the ability to consume for free will and agency.
I urge reading that article for introductory information on why direct labor organization is more important and why anti-sweatshop work is at best problematic.
I want to end this just by saying that if you boycott certain companies for personal reasons, there is nothing wrong with that. Please don’t assume I am trying to be prescriptive about anything- get involved in anti-sweatshop movements for all I care. To me, its akin to being vegan in that you are making an individualistic political statement that implicitly acknowledges that one person’s actions will not change the system. If you don’t want to shop at the GAP, don’t. IDGAF. No one does.
But listen: don’t think anti-sweatshop campaigns work. Try to see where your activism becomes complicated, especially as it relates to people you will never meet in lands far far away.