Sweatshops are workplaces where basic worker rights are not respected. In the US, sweatshops at the turn of the 20th century were plentiful and trade unions worked to organize workers and enact important legislation including minimum wages, child labor laws, and health and safety regulations. Fast forward to the 1990s when the focus was on factories labeled as sweatshops in the developing world where conditions, mirroring the US turn-of-the-century conditions of exploitation continued to flourish. ILRF was one of the first organizations in the US to take on the issue of sweatshops in the developing world, and has continued this work for over 20 years. In addition to general anti-sweatshop activism, ILRF has promoted a Rights for Working Women program to highlight the unique problems of women sweatshop workers. Recently, ILRF has joined forces with SweatFree Communities in order to continue efforts to advocate for sweatfree government procurement.
In the early 1990s, in response to a series of media exposes of sweatshop conditions in the garment and footwear industries, major corporations began to adopt codes of conduct to assure consumers their factories were protecting workers' rights. Codes of conduct and independent monitoring initiatives can play an important role in shifting the terms of debate on labor rights, and thus paving the way for much-needed legal change. In particular, codes have played a useful role in mobilizing large numbers of consumers and workers to fight for better implementation of international labor standards. By the late 1990s, activists were raising concerns that these codes were not effectively being implemented at the factory level. In response to the need for verification, a number of new initiatives were developed. Corporations have, with varying degrees of commitment, engaged and put resources into the development of codes and voluntary monitoring systems.
The movement around corporate-initiated codes has been complemented by activity in the public domain, to pressure local governments to adopt selective purchasing laws. Some entities that serve the public interest, particularly universities, have been under pressure to adopt their own codes of conduct. ILRF continues to work on individual factory cases but has recognized a deeply flawed system is in place requiring a broader approach where corporations must change the process of design and procurement of goods. The most recent shock to factory workers around the world came in the form of the economic crisis where workers have suffered deeply.
A corporation's purchasing practices should take into account its direct and indirect impact on excessive overtime, illegal wage payments, and blatant freedom of association violations. US corporations have a responsibility to protect the rights of workers and eliminate any purchasing policies such as unrealistic delivery schedules, payment that doesn't provide enough to compensate workers with a living wage.
Furthermore it is imperative that US corporations develop a multi-stakeholder engagement process as well as deep relationships with local grassroots organizations in producing areas that are able to communicate more effectively with workers to identify deep seated problems that are not obvious from the surface. Companies like Wal-Mart must dramatically change their sourcing policies. ILRF will continue to pressure all corporations with global supply chains to identify systemic impediments to compliance with labor laws and codes of conduct.
A balanced strategy to combat sweatshops should engage brand-name companies where possible, both through single, stand-alone experiments and to a limited extent through the monitoring programs. We propose a number of immediate steps to improve current voluntary initiatives. Retailers must be responsible for monitoring their own operations and those of their suppliers overseas. Activists must be empowered to bring real sanctions to bear when companies are found to be in violation of basic labor standards. To do this, we need to push for binding legislation, and US activists’ efforts should be complemented by continued worldwide efforts to create a multilateral mechanism to hold labor rights violators accountable.
Finally ILRF helps to promote producing facilities that have decided to take a different approach where freedom of association is respected and living wages are guaranteed. ILRF remains committed to ethical consumerism where US consumers have a choice to support the companies that follow labor laws and then go above and beyond.