Girls to the Rescue

Workers need independent and strong unions, not corporate-sponsored NGOs, to fight their bosses and support their families.

Guangdong Province, China: Worker using sewing machine in textile factory — James Hardy / AltoPress.

Fashion has long had a love/hate relationship with youth. As consumers, the kids are alright — influencers, even — but as laborers in textile factories, they’ve been known to reduce Kathy Lee Gifford to tears on national television. When a litany of bad press and the work of groups like United Students Against Sweatshops brought the idea of sweat-free apparel to the mainstream in the late 1990s, brand executives were faced with two choices: give up the overwhelming powers they had accumulated under globalization, or change the way that consumers understood their power.

They went the public-relations route. Rebranding themselves from pariahs to ethical businesses — and rhetorically repositioning themselves on the side of the sweatshop worker — meant that corporations had to replace the anti-sweatshop activist language of conflict and accountability with the logic of “win-win” partnerships, responsible business ethics, collective challenges, and “continuous learning journeys.”

They pulled the sweatshop issue away from unions and campus activists and into the domain of the business school, the NGO, and the United Nations. In the new environment, blame was shifted to transnational corporations’ business partners, the factory bosses. Since brands were the only actors with real bargaining power over the factories they contracted with, they argued that they were in a unique position to coach their partners toward humane treatment of workers. Corporate power had to be seen as a force to be harnessed through collaborative self-regulation with NGOs, rather than curbed through regulators and unions.

The corporate social responsibility (CSR) regime has today morphed into a global network of brand-sponsored sweatshop inspectors, supply-chain-management firms, NGOs, foundations, and UN agencies that monitor, certify, and rate brands’ supply-chain performance, “name and fame” them for their innovative new ideas with “leadership awards,” invite them to webinars on “Why Ending Gender-based Violence is Good For Business,” and implement corporate charity projects that train impoverished East African teens to found their own social businesses.

On the philanthropy side, the empowerment of teen girls (think self-esteem clubs, rock-band role models, learning apps, and can-do attitudes) turned into the cornerstone of brands’ philanthropy. The past few years, we’ve seen Gucci team up with UNICEF and Beyoncé to brighten the futures of Tanzanian girls with “social messaging tools” and “awareness.” We witnessed the success of Maria Eitel, one of Nike’s top pr and CSR chiefs, in channeling both CSR budgets and official development aid to sketchy Girl Effect programs and, astoundingly, get accepted by the European Commission as a legitimate women’s rights advocate in the Commission’s most recent campaign on women and development. Then there’s Benetton, the Italian brand that, with support from the UN, combines the worst of both (CSR) worlds by training Bangladeshi garment workers to “increase their productivity” and push for promotions through resolute mindsets.

Corporate executives at places like Nike or Benetton claim that entrepreneurship — ideally of the social kind — and factory jobs offer girls and their future children in developing countries a way out of poverty. The truth is, without living wages, strong unions, and a radical redistribution of profits across brands’ supply chains, disempowerment, poverty, and exploitation will remain the norm.

CSR, contradictorily, frames fashion brands and their global sourcing model as the solution to, rather than a cause of , the suffering of the sweatshop worker, and rhetorically transforms the capital generated by that very same sweatshop worker into a philanthropic opportunity for “girl-led,” “sustainable development”

The former CEO of the FLA — a factory-oversight scheme that receives most of its funding from the brands it oversees, including Nike, Adidas, and Hugo Boss — has argued in a ted talk that the sweatshop problem is best tackled if we expand the “safe spaces” where corporations and NGO partners can “come together, sit down without fear of judgment, without recrimination” and collaboratively build trust and “move to action.” What sweatshop workers primarily want from brands, he insists, is not “more money” but dedication to making sure that their factory bosses start treating workers “as human beings.”

Savar, Bangladesh: Rama Plaza building collapse, 2013 — Rijans007 / Flickr.

But money and dignity are connected. They certainly were to the eighteen sweatshop workers I interviewed in Vietnam in 2016 (between twenty-three and fifty-five years old). The workers were employed at five different factories, but had a lot in common: they were all women, they were all by law forbidden to form an independent union, they all made products for Nike, and they all faced harassment, humiliation, abuse, forced overtime, wage theft, and extreme work pressure on a daily basis. Money mattered a lot to their sense of dignity and security. They said they had to earn three to four times as much to offer their families just a basic level of economic security. Poverty wages and wage theft made it impossible for them to ensure their children’s safety. The ten mothers with young children whom I spoke with either sent their children to unlicensed childcare services they considered underqualified or dangerous, or they left them with family in home villages, meaning they could only see them once or twice a year.

Who was responsible for the squeeze? Two women, employed by two different factories, told me their managers had complained to them about Nike’s purchasing rates. Nike’s prices, they claimed, hadn’t kept up with factories’ rising costs in materials and wages. Nike’s profits, meanwhile, have never been higher.

In reality, the safe spaces hailed by the former FLA chief exist to avoid these difficult questions. They often take the form of conferences, organized in upscale hotel and business centers. In November 2017, I attended one such conference in London. Organized by the influential CSR firm elevate, the event brought speakers from NGOs, brands, and major CSR groups together to exchange — through PowerPoint presentations and panel discussions — new ideas and experiences about what supply-chain-management systems “work” and which challenges remain. A CSR techie imploring the audience to embrace “worker-voice technology” as a new innovative tool to “incorporate worker voices” into supply-chain-management programs represented a typical contribution.

Phnom Penh, Cambodia: Vien Dyna, age 15, used a fake ID to get employment working grueling hours for poverty wages — Jason South/Fairfax Media / Getty Images.

I expected that factory bosses would be primarily depicted as brutal, corrupt, and ruthless. But here, the figure of the unsophisticated, inefficient, stubborn, and clumsy, childlike factory boss seemed much more popular. When a panelist put up a slide with the cover of the book You Can’t Make Me (But I Can be Persuaded): Strategies for Bringing Out the Best in Your Strong-Willed Child to drive the parallels home, the audience seemed amused, but not at all shocked.

In some ways, CSR is quite funny. There’s something comical about the NGO that claims to fix health and safety “challenges” in factories by encouraging “managers and workers to move past existing power dynamics [and] identify innovative solutions” together, or about the business lobbyist who defends poverty wages in the morning, lectures governments on their responsibilities in the afternoon, and tweets about girls’ entrepreneurial potential after dinner. But the effects of the CSR regime are real, and they are grim. CSR renders invisible the tens of thousands of garment workers who risk their livelihoods and safety by striking for better wages and basic labor rights, and derails efforts to include strong social clauses in trade agreements and create binding obligations for brands.

On April 24, 2013, the Rana Plaza building in Bangladesh — an eight-story commercial building, housing multiple factories — collapsed, killing at least 1,134 garment workers and injuring over 2,000. It was the deadliest garment factory accident in history, and the devastation was at least in part preventable: despite cracks observed in the foundation, laborers had been ordered to return to work the next day.

Today, the vast majority of garment workers still depend on the same secretive CSR monitors that, just a couple of months before its collapse, visited the Rana Plaza building and deemed it a safe facility that was “maintained in good situation” with “good construction quality.”

Wuhu, China: Seamstresses work at a garment factory — China Photos / Getty Images.

Back to London. During a Q&A session, I asked a speaker if it was at all possible that brands’ own purchasing practices — such as the prices they pay factory bosses and the deadlines they place on their orders — were fueling violations in their supply chains. I got my answer from a vice president of elevate, who walked up to me immediately after the Q&Q ended to lecture me about my misguided question. By questioning the responsibility of brands, he said, I was effectively helping factory owners hide behind this “low-pricing” excuse.

Sure, he said, price pressure exists, but low profit margins — and the abuses that result from cutting costs — are the outcomes of inefficient management practices. Like children, he explained, factory bosses always point fingers to others when they are caught breaking the rules. But if prices were as unreasonably low as they claim, he said, they should either prove it “with statistics” or stop accepting orders they know they can’t turn a profit on.

Many of the workers I had talked to in Vietnam, however, were not employed by small factories, operated by unprofessional “locals,” but by highly efficient textile conglomerates. The extreme work pressure, poverty wages, wage theft, forced overtime, and humiliation they faced did not seem any milder than those suffered by workers in small factories. On the contrary, at the factory run by the Pou Chen Group — a Taiwanese multinational accredited and praised by the FLA for its transparency and grievance systems — managers were so professional that they even printed wage penalties in a company handbook. The handbook stipulated penalties for sitting down, for manufacturing mistakes, and even for “fabricating false stories or starting rumors that can cause damage to the company’s order or reputation.”

Pou Chen is no exception. Around the same time I was in Vietnam, the Worker Rights Consortium (WRC) found similarly abusive conditions and rules — including a ban on yawning — at the Vietnamese plant of the South Korean firm Hansae, another FLA-covered Nike supplier. Hansae workers said that excessive temperatures, abusive management styles, and forced overtime caused some of them to routinely collapse during work, only to be told to get back to work after waking up.

What these stories tell us is that contrary to the lecture I was given in London, we should be pointing fingers at the brands.

The findings of a large supply-chain survey by the International Labour Organization (ILO), published in 2017, provides powerful evidence in support of this idea. It said that garment buyers —more than other industries — impose extreme price pressure on their suppliers. More than half of surveyed garment manufacturers said they had produced orders below production costs that year. A study on Bangladesh by Mark Anner from Penn State University found that since Rana Plaza, the prices paid by retailers and brands to supplier factories had declined by 13 percent and that the lead times had also gone down. The result: real wages went down, forced overtime went up, and union growth stagnated.

Some defend CSR by arguing that “something is better than nothing” and that ultimately, CSR pursues the same ends as unions, students, and other CSR critics. But any initiative that sees corporate power as the solution, rather than the problem, and pretends obscene corporate profits are not directly connected to poverty wages and union repression, ultimately undermines the ability of workers to collectively bargain for better jobs, lives, and futures for their children.

CSR rhetoric talks a lot about “giving.” Worker rights start “with just giving people back their dignity,” said the FLA chief in his ted talk. We “give” girls the skills and opportunity to entrepreneur their way to liberation, say the brands.

Patronizing charity and false individualized empowerment promises won’t get workers dignified jobs, safe childcare, and a path out of poverty for their children. Not without the freedom to collectively fight those who exploit — who take from — them.

If the voluntary approach of CSR — with all its capital, power, and decades of experience —could produce meaningful change then it would have already done so. Sweatshop workers need rights, not excuses.

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Maria Hengeveld investigates and writes about gender, globalization, and human rights. She's a PhD student at the University of Cambridge and a contributing editor at Africa is a Country.

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