High-tech capitalism reinvents the sweatshop
Workers World, 6 November 1997
HIGH-TECH CAPITALISM REINVENTS THE SWEATSHOP
Clothing is a basic human need. No getting around it: Human beings need clothes to survive.
No wonder that under capitalism the industry producing and distributing clothing rolls in the profits. But only under capitalism are those who toil making the garments often unable to afford the very clothes they make.
THE RISE OF SWEATSHOPS
An outcry has greeted the dramatic rise of sweatshops in the United States and around the world with working conditions that were supposed to have disappeared by 1920.
Investigations revealed child labor, sexual harassment, long hours, wages way below legal minimums and horribly unsafe working conditions. Companies like Nike, the Gap and Guess? jeans have particularly been exposed for their participation in the sweatshop scandal.
But they are not alone.
Clothing is a phenomenally big business. In 1994, wholesale apparel sales in the United States were $78.4 billion, according to a Standard and Poor industry survey. Retail sales were $211 billion.
Over 30,000 clothing manufacturers in this country employ over 800,000 workers. Around the world, these same companies directly or indirectly employ at least another 400,000 people.
Among them are many small shops that the big manufacturers subcontract to. Not just Nike and the Gap--but Sears, J.C. Penney, Macy's and others encourage these sweatshops--with their super-exploitation of labor--to maximize their profits.
As in the early 1900s, today's sweatshops are filled with immigrant workers--documented and undocumented. They provide a pool of cheap labor. Most are women. Sometimes children work too.
UNION-BUSTING AND RESTRUCTURING
At a time of unprecedented advances in science and technology, how can such abominable conditions exist?
Technology has so advanced that clothing patterns can be simulated via computer modeling. Yet immigrant workers who sit at the real-life sewing machine are still subjected to slave-like conditions.
The rise of sweatshops must be viewed in the context of the profound economic changes that occurred over the last 20 years. Unprecedented corporate restructuring since the 1980s has raised profits by driving down real wages.
Union busting paved the way as major industries such as steel and auto shut down scores of factories, displacing formerly highly skilled, high-wage workers. In the U.S. garment industry, employment has declined 30 percent since the mid-1970s.
The jobs lost were mostly union jobs. In their place came sweatshops.
As long as society is run by capitalists, as long as profit is the economic mode of operation, sweatshops will exist and thrive.
WHAT DOES IT TAKE TO END SWEATSHOPS?
Anger at deplorable sweatshop conditions has sparked a genuine movement. Labor activists are in the forefront of organizing a worldwide effort to condemn conditions in these sweatshops. They have held demonstrations, picket lines and petition drives, and sent solidarity messages.
Significantly, a coalition of women's groups recently attacked Nike, the athletic-shoe manufacturer, as hypocritical for its television commercials featuring women athletes.
In a letter to Nike, the women wrote that women in Nike's plants "suffer from inadequate wages, corporal punishment, forced overtime and/or sexual harassment." Author Alice Walker and Rep. Maxine Waters were among those who signed the letter.
Eleanor Smeal, president of Feminist Majority, said: "The sweatshops, which all of us thought were a thing of the past, are back again. And just like the feminists at the turn of the century fought them, it's incumbent on us to do the same."
Even the Catholic Church of New Jersey spoke out against sweatshops.
These efforts have put the garment industry bosses on the defensive. Corporations have now signed agreements to assure that certain standards in sweatshops are upheld.
But one such agreement promises only that workers will work no more than 60 hours a week. Anti-sweatshop activists say they won't rest until the bosses agree to pay union wages in a 40-hour week.
Furthermore, agreements that are already in place have not been enforceable. Even the New York Times wrote that "the code is so littered with loopholes its impact will probably be limited ... ."
What will put an end once and for all to sweatshops in this century and the next is to put the entire profit motive of the capitalist system on trial. While corporations scour the globe for low-wage workers and more profits, no struggle to hold them accountable can entirely abolish sweatshops.
Karl Marx said that the capitalist class would create its own gravediggers--meaning the workers it employs and exploits. The multinational corporations have for decades respected no borders in their worldwide search for markets, profits and cheap labor. In laying the basis for a global capitalist system, the ruling class has also laid the basis for global solidarity among workers and oppressed.
Union activists are already talking about it. That's a beginning. And the unity of the international working class is essential to their victory over capitalist profits. Then clothing produced for profits will be a thing of the past-- and so will sweatshops.
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