I am writing in response to an opinion piece published Oct. 21, entitled Idealistic students fail to recognize factors involved in sweatshops by Richard Alan Weiss.
Until recently, I was not involved with and did not sympathize with the anti-sweatshop movement.
I wear Gap clothes, I thought, and I like my Nike shoes, so why should I be against sweatshops? Frankly, the possibility of not being able to buy Nike sneakers if a factory closed down upset me. That was the uneducated me.
Some time later, while doing research about women in developing countries, I stumbled upon an article about women in sweatshops and read about the horrifying conditions in which they work. I wanted to learn more about sweatshops, and that’s when I decided to attend my first Progressive Student Union meeting. There, I watched video footage made by a delegation of Americans who, like I, wanted to learn the truth about sweatshops.
This truth was, and still is, very unsettling to me. I watched a 15-year-old girl speak about being forced to take birth control pills every two weeks, and, if she refuses, those pills were forced down her throat in front of the sweatshop administration. The girl spoke about her friends who managed to avoid the pills and became pregnant, only to be forced to abort the baby later by an injection done in front of and by that same administration. I saw people who were systematically deprived of an education and of a future. What shocked me the most was that these women had aspirations – they wanted to go to school, they knew that a better life existed.
After the meeting, I started reading information about the topic, and I came upon an article about a report published by Reebok, Inc., detailing problems with the labor conditions in their plants. The report talked about workers suffering rashes from harsh chemicals and pregnant women who have to stand or sit on uncomfortable stools with no back support and who suffered nausea and vomiting because during their pregnancies they had to work around these chemicals. These facts were just enough to get me interested in United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS).
The New York Times calls student protests against sweatshops the biggest surge in campus activism in almost two decades. I learned that the anti-sweatshop campaign is turning into the most powerful student movement since the anti-apartheid protests of the 1980s. In less than a year a movement sparked by protests at two or three schools has official members in some 150 universities around the country. And these members achieve their goals – they have victories to celebrate.
Our neighbors, students at Georgetown University, got their administration to review their bookstore contract with Nike. Students from Duke University have recently testified in front of the Congress about this cause. This is proof that petitions and protests do make a difference.
With $2.5 billion in college-name merchandise sold nationwide each year, we, the students, should be confident that we can use our moral stature and GW’s financial power to bring about change in manufacturing, even abroad. Because saying that sweatshops in the U.S. are a problem and outside are not is problematic in several ways.
For one, it sounds racist in that it implies that American sweatshop workers are worth caring about just because they are American, while sweatshop workers elsewhere are not worthy of our concern. Why? Because they are inferior to American workers?
It is important to understand that students who oppose sweatshops do not oppose development. Development is a positive thing, but the global economy should not mean global exploitation. We have all heard the numbers, such as 12 cents an hour wage, but it is important to realize that it is as bad as it sounds. A Columbia University study of El Salvador’s labor conditions found that the legal minimum wage meets less than one-third of basic subsistence needs of the average family, and garment workers often cannot afford milk or other essential foods for their children.
After learning the facts, I turned from an indifferent observer into an activist. We, the students who made an educated choice to oppose horrifying conditions that sweatshop workers have to face, want to also educate others. Do not worry, we do not want to shut down the Gap or make Nike go out of business. We do not advocate boycotts of any specific goods.
We do demand a living wage and want to require that all manufacturers disclose the names and addresses of their factories to make it possible for interested groups to monitor labor conditions.
But this is more than a labor issue – this is also a women’s issue. More than 95 percent of garment workers worldwide are women, and they deserve to have basic human rights, they deserve reproductive rights, humane conditions and rights over their own bodies. They also deserve to have choices, because they do know better.
And if you do not believe me, Mr. Weiss, I invite you to attend a meeting of the Progressive Student Union and educate yourself about the true situation of sweatshop workers.
-The writer is a member of the Progressive Student Union.