The Observer’s Dan McDougall described their garment shop as, “smeared with filth, corridors flooded with excrement from a flooded toilet.” The workers recounted threats and beatings from management to keep their nimble fingers moving. Hours were long and the wages painfully low when they were paid at all.
Who were these workers? Children in India, some as young as ten years old, working in slave-like conditions that shame us all. And what was the intended destination of the kid-made clothing: Gap stores across the United States and Europe just in time for the Christmas shopping bonanza now well on its way after Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving and the largest shopping day of the year.
Public relations professionals are no doubt praising Gap for their swift and on-message response. The public just doesn’t believe the denial response anymore when it comes to sweatshops in the Global South.
In light of this skepticism, the de rigueur corporate response after being outed for using a sweatshop and child labor is to:
1) express surprise and dismay;
2) assert that the sweatshop goes against fundamental corporate policy;
3) blame the subcontractor;
4) and conclude with a vague pledge to tackle the problem.
Gap chose this more advanced response, savvy enough to know that the denial response doesn’t cut it anymore. But the story of Gap as the unwitting victim of an unscrupulous subcontractor just doesn’t hold up for the following reasons:
1) Instead of manufacturing its clothing where it’s sold, Gap chose to manufacture in the Global South.
2) Instead of employing workers in the Global South directly, Gap contracted out the work.
3) Instead of ensuring that the contractor was responsible for the work, Gap allowed a subcontractor to get the work done or was at least recklessly indifferent to who was getting the work done.
4) Instead of paying a fair price for the clothing, Gap chose to pay sweatshop prices, forcing the far less powerful contractor and subcontractor to exploit the child workers.
While it has not gotten into details, Gap as per the script, is pledging vigorous action in response to the discovery and subsequent freeing of the Indian child workers.
It’s no secret what Gap needs to do if it’s serious about eradicating child labor in its supply chain: Hire garment workers directly, not through layers of contractors, and adopt a neutral stance toward employees exercising their right under international law to free association in the form of a labor union.
But a worker-centered solution is not what we’re going to see from the Gap. Whatever scheme Gap does come up with is unlikely to deviate seriously from the status quo and most certainly won’t include a system with meaningful participation from garment workers themselves. But the Gap scheme will have high public relations value and the corporate media will dutifully report Gap’s seriousness of purpose.
Gap won’t do the right thing because our movement is not yet powerful enough to make it do the right thing. We need to build our power and not shopping at Gap or the rest of the big brand retailers is far from enough.
Whether they are the retail workers hustling at the cash register and on the sales floor or the workers sweating in the garment factories and in the dye houses, Gap workers and their counterparts at the global chains need our solidarity, not just a silent boycott.
The awesome power that the global corporations wield over employees and communities alike will not be checked without the active role of the workers themselves.
Together as workers at the chains and members of the communities where they operate, we can hold the multinationals to account and build a movement for brand justice.
DANIEL GROSS is an organizer with the IWW Starbucks Workers Union and the founding director of Brandworkers International, a new non-profit providing legal, advocacy, and organizing support to retail and food workers throughout the supply chain. He can be reached at email@example.com.