Claiming connections: A distant world of sweatshops?
Claiming connections: A distant world of sweatshops?

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Claiming connections: A distant world of sweatshops?

1 Overview

1.3 To sweatshops closer to home

1.3.1 Introduction

Holding up the East Asian success story as the way forward has, as I indicated above, little appeal for the antisweatshop movement. For its members, a different image comes to mind of thousands of workers eking out a living from the numerous sweatshops which dot that part of the world: one that involves the perpetuation of poverty wage levels, the use and abuse of poor communities, and the constant taking advantage of what is ready to hand, followed by withdrawal and abandonment. What they see is a vicious circle of decline, a ‘race to the bottom’, as they graphically describe it.

Figure 11
Figure 11 Clean Clothes Campaign rally, Amsterdam, 1999. The graffiti on the inflated shoe box says ‘living wage’ and ‘do it’ in Dutch. Source: Clean Clothes Campaign, exhibit 27.

The comparatively small economies of Hong Kong, Singapore and Taiwan, as well as South Korea, may have fared well since the 1970s, but, as the antisweatshop movement sees it, few others can follow their example. Campaigners have not been slow to point out that the global economy nowadays is far more competitive and unequally structured, making it much more difficult for countries such as Bangladesh or Indonesia simply to mirror the achievements of the ‘Asian Tigers’. The world economy is not a level playing field where all countries start out from the same economic position; the gap between rich and poor countries is wider than ever before and the uneven economic legacies are too great for those at the bottom to overcome. History, and indeed geography, sweatshop campaigners argue, is not on their side. Figure 12 shows how, over the last century, the richest countries increased their share of income fourfold while the poorest countries’ income share remained fairly constant throughout.

Figure 12
Figure 12 The widening income gap between countries, 1900–2000: the five richest countries in contrast to the five poorest. Source: Dicken, 2003, p. 513, Figure 15.1

This, you may well agree, is not the easiest or most straightforward message to get across, especially to audiences removed from the daily hardships that workers in Asian sweatshops have to endure. With the likely impression that little, if anything, can be done about market forces on the far side of the globe, the fragmented nature of much of what goes on in the world economy can make such hardships appear very remote. The challenge, then, that the antisweatshop movement faced in the 1980s and into the 1990s was how to bring to the attention of consumers and retailers, mainly in Europe and North America, the distant exploitation and injustice that, it claimed, underpinned these consumers' lifestyles.

Umbrella organisations such as the Clean Clothes Campaign with its network of groups in Europe and beyond, as well as large nongovernmental organisations (NGOs) such as Christian Aid and Oxfam in the UK, and the more recent university-based movement in the USA, set themselves the task of trying to connect the bits and pieces of the market machinery that comprise the global clothes industry. Where the market fragmented responsibility or sought to erase it, campaigning groups, often through rallies such as the one shown in Figure 11 , tried to render the connections visible, by tracking the lines of so-called responsibility between those who actually bought and wore the socks, shirts, vests and trainers and those who laboured to produce them in far-off locations. What they set out to do was collapse the economic distance created by the market which separated the producer from the consumer.

Defining non-governmental organisations

Non-governmental organisations (NGOs), as the term implies, act alongside, or even in opposition to, official government bodies (although they often draw on government funding), with many different ambitions. Some work to promote development, others to meet local community needs or to encourage environmental change. Some groups are also interested in bringing about wider political changes, often at the international level, in relation to the areas in which they work. In recent years, NGOs have become a critical force in raising public awareness about issues that hitherto may not have reached a great many people outside of established interest groups and governments. Acting as pressure or advocacy groups, they frequently lobby on a single-issue basis – such as the environment, human rights or sweatshop exploitation – to achieve clearly defined goals. Although not necessarily democratically accountable, and often with limited resources, their willingness to pursue direct political action alongside traditional lobbying tactics gives them an influence that repeatedly outweighs their membership and size.

In practice, the attempt to bring the far-off within reach often touched upon a range of emotions that tried to give remote sweatshops a heightened sense of presence for distant consumers. Such is Lern's story, given in Extract 1 attached on page 16.


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