On Wednesday, Sept. 22, four members of the Progressive Student Union, including myself, went to Georgetown University to attend a panel discussion on the issue of sweatshop labor.
Charles Kernaghan of the National Labor Committee, famous for being the man who exposed the sweatshops where Kathy Lee Gifford clothes are made, opened the meeting. He gave a powerful speech to the nearly 100 people crammed into that Georgetown classroom, but it paled in comparison to the real reason we were all there, and that was to hear the testimony of sweatshop workers from El Salvador.
Bravely the two women, Blanca, 45, and Lorena, 21, took to the podium, knowing full well that there are death threats hanging over their heads because they are daring to criticize their jobs. They spoke of a world that few of us can possibly imagine. In the El Salvadorian sweatshop where they work, they sew clothes for many prominent American companies. These clothes are then sold to the American consumer for prices ranging from $20 into the hundreds of dollars.
And what are they paid for the task? Sixty-nine cents an hour.
But there is much more to this story. In the garment industry, women are by far the majority of the employees. Why? Because they are less likely to speak out about their terrible conditions. They are less likely to speak out about forced pregnancy tests, about being beaten, about being locked in a closet if they can’t keep up with the work.
The two women who spoke are the bravest people I have ever laid eyes on. They spoke about the rape by management, about how they are searched and fondled by armed guards before they go to work. If they have to use the bathroom, it had better be during those two hours during what is usually a 14- to 16-hour shift that the bathroom is unlocked, otherwise they’re out of luck. And if the guards catch them in the bathroom for longer than two minutes, they are forcibly dragged out.
Blanca and Lorena told us about forced sterilization of women that is used to not only keep them from getting pregnant and missing work, but also because the management doesn’t like all those trips to the bathroom during a woman’s period. They can’t bring their own water with them to drink in the 100-plus degree heat – instead they must drink water from the tap, and in a developing country that can kill you.
In a sweatshop, forced overtime is the norm, but don’t have any fantasies about getting time and a half, because that concept does not exist. Neither does the idea of getting time off in case of death in the family. The fact is that if a worker misses a day, for any reason, not only do they lose that day’s pay, but also the next day’s pay.
Can anything be done for these two women, and the hundreds of thousands of women, children and men like them across the world? The answer is yes, and we can help right here.
We as students can demand that GW only deal with garment companies that do not use sweatshop labor as a condition for getting the University’s business. This has been accomplished at schools across the country, from tiny Middlebury College in Vermont to the gigantic University of Wisconsin. Universities are reacting to the demands of their students, staff, faculty and administration to end sweatshop labor now and forever. GW must follow this trend.
After the women spoke, Jiovanni, a male student from El Salvador who had been threatened with his life many times because he was a union organizer, made a poignant comment that stuck out in our minds. He explained that we were all students fighting for the same cause around the world and that we must not be defeated, as we strike fear into the hearts of large corporations that deal with sweatshops.
Jiovanni couldn’t have been more correct. The history of our country tells us that student activism works. Already, the garment industry is relenting under the threat of our power.
If GW joins the growing list of universities that have taken on the moral responsibility to help end sweatshops, then our influence can only grow, and we will be one step closer to ending the murderous conditions that workers in sweatshops must face.
-The writer is president of the Progressive Student Union.