March 14, 2000
As soon as students began filing into the bare Corcoran third-floor classroom, a trend emerged. The GW students, typically plastered with brand-name logos on clothes that seem to be stolen from show-window mannequins, were draped in generic duds, sans labels.
The room was devoid of shiny Guess? signs, Nike swoosh marks and the words bebe, Tommy and Kate Spade. Clearly, the audience knew why they were there — to hear a first-hand account of the atrocities taking place in the sweatshops around the world, some of which produce the same designer duds they frequently purchase.
The Progressive Student Union invited Darlina Lumbantoruan, a former sweatshop worker in Indonesia, who spoke movingly to the packed classroom.
Lumbantoruan, a soft-spoken, middle-aged woman, said not much has changed for Indonesian factory workers in the past 16 years. She endured eight years of poor working conditions in a textile factory, six more years fighting for female factory workers’ rights with a union and is currently traveling to inform students what they can do to help the conditions of people who make the clothes they wear.
At work, Lumbantoruan said she persevered through intense heat, dangerous machines, intimidating bosses and cruel treatment, only to earn an income so low she had to work overtime to survive. For eight years she was paid enough to buy six liters of rice a day, which is not enough to sustain a family. Sixteen years later, she said workers are paid enough to buy half that amount of food.
She told the story of struggle and determination to make ends meet that thousands of workers overseas and in American factories know first-hand.
Even though they’re not physically strong enough to do it, they have to force themselves to work overtime, she said in her native Indonesian language, through a translator.
Women are made to work when pregnant, restricted from having maternity leave and confined by contracts not to marry. They experience some of the harshest conditions, she said.
Where are the workers going to complain (to)? she asked.
The emotions seeded in Lumbantoruan’s life struggle reverberated through the room as students listened to her foreign tongue and waited patiently for a translation.
Since the Indonesian dictator Gen. Suharto was forced out of office in 1998, the only improvement to sweatshop conditions was the institution of workers’ rights to unionize, independent of factory control, she said. But workers, fearing the loss of their jobs, are still discouraged from voicing their complaints.
The root of the problem in Indonesia and similar countries, which have sweatshops, lies with the International Monetary Fund and World Bank, she said. These money-lending organizations force debts on countries, causing a rise in inflation and less buying power for workers, she said.
There are very few multinational organizations that have implemented good working conditions, she said.
Asking what they could do to help, Lumbantoruan told students to get the word out that workers around the world are experiencing harsh working conditions and to join the fight to improve them. The students were already receptive to their plight.