IMF/ World Bank protests: Protesters block GAP store during weekend of unrest

Hundreds of protesters converged Saturday at a GAP store in the Georgetown area of D.C., calling for an end to sweatshop labor and what they believe is exploitation by the clothing manufacturer.

The protests coincided with this weekend’s planned demonstrations at the spring meetings of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, where nearly 40,000 people were expected.

College students formed the majority of protesters but were joined by people up to three times their age. They chanted and sang, stripped to their underwear and bore on their chests phrases like GAP Sucks.

This protest is to draw attention to the corporate lack of social responsibility, said Alice Nixon, a 22 year-old resident of Tampa, Fla. They are not responsible for their workers.

GAP, Inc. – whose brands include GAP, Banana Republic, and Old Navy – have long come under fire by organizations supporting fair treatment of workers and safe working conditions.

Human need, not corporate greed, protesters chanted as police in riot gear stood at alert. What’s the GAP got to hide? Sweatshop clothes sold inside.

We’ve got to start thinking people, not money, said Bob Rootes, a United Steelworkers of America union member from Pittsburgh, Pa. We’ve fought for years to fight oppression in the United States.

Rootes noted that joining with the students helps support their interest in fighting worker oppression abroad.

The protest wasn’t solely geared toward sweatshop labor. The story behind the logging of Northern California’s Mendocino redwood forests by the Fisher family – founders of the GAP – was a central focus of the protesters’ environmental concerns. In 1998, the Fisher family bought 350 square miles of controversial timberlands in Mendocino County, according to The Wall Street Journal. Since then, the company has been in a battle with local environmentalists for using herbicides and initially continuing to use the previous company’s harvesting plans that included clear cuts.

The owners of GAP are making so much money cutting down redwood forests, and a lot of people don’t even know, said Katie Spencer, a sophomore at St. Lawrence University in Canton, N.Y.

Spencer came with 40 of her peers for World Bank/IMF protests.

As more people are being made aware, a lot more people are joining in, Spencer said. It’s so good to see all these people out here trying to make a difference.

The student activists publicly touted their unity and diversity and ability to come together on varying issues. The high number of young people speaks to the growing sense of activism on college campuses, said Chrystal Schreck, a sophomore at New York’s Bard College.

People are finally becoming aware, she said. I think college students are taking a stand and letting GAP know they aren’t going to buy clothes that exploit labor.

In Wisconsin, University of Wisconsin at Madison students hold a monthly protest at the local GAP, sophomore Maddy Brigell said.

We’re trying to make the connections between the GAP and global economic practices in general, Brigell said.

They consider the GAP to be a major player in the spread of unjust capitalism. But not all people at the protest believed labor in third-world countries is a bad thing.

Keith Somers, 28, of Los Angeles, said the protesters are misdirected.

(Third-world countries’) only competitive advantage is that they have a low-cost labor base, he said. Those people want those jobs. But it’s still not a license to go in and exploit them.

Somers acknowledged the intentions of the protesters were good, but emphasized they should seek other ways to promote fair treatment in third-world countries.

Alan Marks, company spokesman of GAP, Inc., agreed.

As a company, we’re just as committed to providing workers with respect, he said Saturday from GAP’s corporate headquarters in San Francisco. We do have a code of conduct that is very clear on working conditions.

The Code of Conduct details GAP’s regulations for its manufacturing facilities in the United States and abroad and specific policies that must be followed, he said. Marks could not comment on the Fisher family’s logging interests, saying it is a different company.

We have a global network of people who monitor compliance, Marks added. We’re committing significant time, resources, people and energy to this.

But for the students who said they will continue their passionate and heated crusade against GAP, Inc., and global exploitation, they believe their mission is far from being accomplished. They said they plan to continue their boycott against GAP products.

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