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?

1.3.2 Bringing remote sweatshops within reach

Activity 3

You can judge for yourself how effective campaigning groups have been in revealing the connections between producers and consumers by reading Extract 1, ‘Nike in Thailand: Lern's story’. Posted on the Oxfam website in 2003, it represents one among many ways in which antisweatshop campaigners have attempted to make Asian sweatshops known to a wider global audience of buyers and consumers. Read it carefully and make up your own mind as to the basis of the appeal. What, if anything, is it saying about our involvement in Lern's predicament? How does it try to draw us closer to events elsewhere?

Click to read Tim Connor on 'Nike in Thailand'. [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)]

In one sense, we are being asked to identify with Lern's predicament, to care about what happens to her and others like her. But there is also a sense in which, by using the retail brand names in the e-campaign, a link is being demonstrated between what people might wear and the working lives of those who suffer ‘behind the label’. In many of the campaigns waged by the antisweatshop movement – whether it be a demonstration on the high street, the boycott of a major retailer, the lobbying of politicians or an email campaign – there is an attempt to collapse the economic distance between ‘us’ and ‘them’. This increases the presence of distant sweatshops in the hearts and minds of those who perhaps shop without giving a second thought to the conditions under which their latest purchase – a pair of trainers or socks perhaps – was produced. Among the many issues highlighted by the antisweatshop movement in such campaigns have been the proven use of child labour in Cambodian factories; the use of forced or prison labour on the Indian subcontinent; and the verbal and physical abuse of workers in China; together with violations over unsafe machinery, blocked exits, environmental hazards, appalling sanitary conditions and, as in Lern's case, excessive working hours, forced overtime and the payment of minimal wages.

The message of the often quite diverse campaigns tends to be direct, intense and carefully targeted. Figure 1 , if you glance at it, is much the same in both its directness and tone. There would appear to be little that is ambivalent about the political aims of the antisweatshop movement. Exploitation and injury at the workplace, it claims, is the same whether near or far. The barriers of distance that are often spoken about make no difference to a sense of injustice that, in practice, is just as relevant ‘here’ as it is ‘there’, in distant sweatshops overseas (Castree et al., 2004). Part of the campaigners' message, it would seem, is that we cannot escape our involvement in what is a seamless economic process that spans the globe. Once we pull on a T-shirt or a tracksuit made by exploited labour overseas, we are caught up in a grossly unfair system that benefits us at the expense of distant others.

Figure 1
Figure 1 Sweatshop conditions reported by workers in factories supplying leading brands. ‘Publicly owned’ means that the company has shareholders and ‘privately owned’ means that it does not. Source: adapted from Oxfam (based on interviews with workers in factories), 2004

At times, though, it is hard to know exactly what to make of all this, of such seemingly uncomplicated claims. Are they part of a political appeal to an assumed, almost innate sense of social justice that resides within us in the hope that we will respond positively to such gestures? Or are stories such as Lern's simply an emotional demand to care for the well-being of workers in remote, sometimes unheard of locations? Perhaps we are being made to feel guilty of perpetuating such dreadful working conditions by our often unthinking spending habits or, worse still, perhaps we are really to blame for them? I will return to these and other similar questions in Section 4 , but for now I want to remain with the manifest claims of the antisweatshop movement and how it has challenged the sense in which market forces can erase or, at least, distance us from responsibilities to others elsewhere.

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