Fighting for worker justice in the global economy.
Background Information: Sweatshops
Maquilas and sweatshops
Maquiladoras (maquilas, for short) are factories in Latin America that produce for export, generally to the U.S. and Canada. Those that produce garments for export are what most people envision when they think of sweatshops, where workers experience poverty-level wages and long hours. While not all maquilas are dark and dirty factories, most violate the basic human rights of their workers. Most garment maquilas in Central America, Mexico, and the Dominican Republic produce for U.S. companies.
In the 1990s, exposes about worker abuses, use of child labor, and poor conditions in Central American maquiladoras led to the birth of an anti-sweatshop movement in North America that prompted high-profile companies to begin taking steps to address the damage to their brand image. Campaigns were led by USLEAP (then the U.S./Guatemala Labor Education in the Americas), the National Labor Committee (then the National Labor Committee in Support of Human Rights and Democracy in El Salvador), Witness for Peace, Campaign for Labor Rights, U.S. and international trade union groups, and others.
Many groups are now engaged in trying to end apparel sweatshops, using different strategies and approaches.
While some progress has been made in reducing the worse abuses in Latin America, most maquila workers are still unable to earn enough money to support their families adequately and workers continue to be denied their basic human rights.
USLEAP focuses on supporting workers' own efforts to improve their conditions and wages, especially when they organize to form unions. USLEAP believes any long-term solution to ending sweatshops must be based on the ability of workers to defend their own interests. The ability of workers to organize also strengthens civil society and the broader goal of democracy.
However, workers who try to organize unions in the maquila sector face severe obstacles, with anti-union employers often operating in collusion with local governments to prevent the formation of independent unions, denying workers their basic human rights. Anti-union tactics include violence, intimidation, illegal firings, discrimination, plant closures, and use of corrupt legal systems.
Global trade rules
USLEAP believes that it is fundamental that new trade rules be established to protect workers and their basic human rights. Global trade must be governed by rules that effectively protect workers anywhere who seek to organize to improve their wages and conditions. There must be a level playing field at the global level. Otherwise, efforts to improve conditions in one factory, one industry, or even one country will be difficult to maintain even if achieved because others will be able to compete unfairly.
Related Responses and Issues
Codes of conduct
In the 1990s, apparel companies began adopting codes of conduct for their suppliers and operations abroad, accepting at least in principle that they are responsible for the treatment of workers in factories that produce their clothing. Virtually all U.S. major clothing brands and retailers now have some form of a code of conduct and acknowledge that they have at least some responsibility for the way workers are treated at factories that produce their clothing and apparel for the U.S. market. Some codes are much more comprehensive than others, and include respect for freedom of association (e.g. Levi’s). Some do not. Some companies devote extensive resources to monitoring supply chain compliance (e.g. Gap). Others do not.
Complaince with Codes
Demands for third-party verification of compliance with codes of conduct have led to the development of for-profit “social” audit firms, independent non-profit organizations (e.g. COVERCO in Guatemala), and new certification schemes (SA 8000). Some audits are truly independent, others are controlled by the company. Monitoring, verification, social auditing, and corporate responsibility in general have become a growth industry since the 1990s. The Maquila Solidarity Network provides excellent, comprehensive, and updated reviews of the various schemes and approaches.
Student anti-sweatshop movement
Since the late 1990s, the push for improvements in the apparel sector has been led in the U.S. by the student anti-sweatshop movement, primarily USAS (United Students Against Sweatshops). USAS campaigns to end sweatshop conditions in the production of college-licensed apparel. The Worker Rights Consortium was founded as an independent organization to investigate and remedy violations at factories producing apparel for member universities, as an alternative to the Fair Labor Association under which final control is in the hands of companies.
City and local governments and even some high schools around the country have adopted procurement policies to require purchasing of “sweatfree” production. Sweatfree producers are generally defined as workplaces where workers have a voice, either through a union or a cooperative, and are paid a living wage. SweatFree Communities coordinates and supports campaigns and maintains a list of sweatfree retailers.
While there is growing demand for “sweatfree production,” very few factories in Latin America currently qualify for sweatfree designation. Most apparel designated as “sweatfree” is produced in the remaining union shops left in North America.
USAS launched a new initiative (the Designated Supplier Program) in 2005 that would require universities to source an increasing percentage of their apparel from “sweatfree” producers, partly with the intent of helping provide space for workers to organize at factories abroad producing collegiate-licensed apparel.
Empowering Women Workers
Some of the obstacles to worker organizing are internal. For example, most maquila workers in Central America are women but union organizations are male-dominated. STITCH has been active in Central America in efforts to support maquila women workers in their efforts to be effective trade union leaders in male-dominated structures.
The Fair Trade movement is exploring certification of clothing. Fair trade certification of clothing has raised complex issues. Will certification apply to both the making of cloth (textile) and its sewing (apparel)? What about primary input goods, like cotton, some of which is produced under extremely poor conditions in Africa? Will certification criteria apply to factories with hundreds of workers or only to cooperatives and small producers? [Note: some groups outside the mainstream Fair Trade movement have begun marketing their own version of fair trade or sweatfree clothing, but they do not include rigorous standards and lack the support of workers.]
See USLEAP’s statement on fair trade and other certification schemes.
WTO and Sweatshops
Changes in trade rules mandated by the World Trade Organization (WTO) have increased downward pressure on labor costs, reducing the prospect that conditions can be significantly improved under the current system unless trade rules are changed and workers protected from global competition and a race to the bottom in wages and working conditions. In 2008, the International Textile, Garment and Leather Workers Federation (ITGLWF), the global federation that reprents maquila worker unions around the world, launched a Living Wage campaign to raise wages in the garment and textile sector.
Under the Multi-Fibre Agreement (MFA), established in 1974, international trade negotiators agreed to measures intended to provide limited protection to apparel and textile production in the North, setting a quota on how much apparel could be exported from one country to the U.S. and other developed countries. Subsequently, manufacturers who reached their quota in their home country (e.g. Taiwan and South Korea) began expanding production to Central America and Mexico to take advantage of unused quotas, proximity to the U.S. market, and low wages. Apparel production in the region boomed, beginning in the 1990s. The unintended consequences of the MFA was to spread clothing production to dozens of countries around the globe, especially in Central America.
The MFA expired on December 31, 2004, mandated by global trade rules set by the WTO to reduce restrictions on trade and promote free trade. The end of quotas led to wide-spread predictions that the region’s maquiladora sector would be decimated as brands, no longer confined by country quotas, would shift production from Central America and Mexico to lower-wage counties in Asia, especially China. Apparel production went down in Mexico and throughout most of Central America. However, the drop has not yet been as dramatic as some predicted.
The removal of quotas has increased free market competition in the clothing sector that, along with free trade agreements like NAFTA, is also speeding the decline of the U.S. apparel industry. U.S. government statistics from 2007 showed a loss of 1 million jobs in the U.S. apparel industry since 1994, when NAFTA was implemented.
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- Trade, Globalization, and the Race to the Bottom
- Flower Workers and Economic Justice
- Honduran Labor Resistance to the Coup
- Labor Rights in Mexico
- Banana Worker Justice Initiative
- Sweatshop Initiative
- Coffee Worker Justice Initiative
- Past Struggles
Check out our collaborative labor rights blog, Labor is Not a Commodity!