A Contract to End Sweatshops

On February 10th, as activists in Manhattan boisterously protested the New York Fashion Week brand Adidas runway, factory-level union producing Adidas clothing in Indonesia, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Haiti, India, Cambodia, Bangladesh, Guatemala and the Dominican Republic were delivering a letter to their bosses.  The letter announced the formation of the International League for Brand Responsibility and demanded that Adidas agree to collectively negotiate a Jobbers Agreement with workers.  Such an agreement would circumvent subcontracted factory owners to negotiate with brands around issues such as wages, conditions and union recognition.  The announcement represents a rebirth of a historic tactic for the globalized garment sector, and a watershed moment for global labor rights.

Return of the Sweatshop

When a fire raged in November 2012 through a subcontracted garment factory in Dhaka’s Tarzeen Fashion Factory it left 112 workers dead and 200 injured.  Tarzeen produced clothing for Wal-Mart, Sears and Disney.  In the last four months of 2012 alone there were nearly 500 deaths in four factory fires across three different countries, making it one of the deadliest years for garment workers. The latest incident has often been compared to the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory of 1911 that caused 146 deaths in New York City.

In the decades preceding the Triangle factory disaster, New York’s garment district had risen to become a national center for apparel production and where the word “sweatshop” was first coined. Then, as now, garment production was vertically disintegrated and independent from the retail/brand buyers. The subcontracted factory arrangement offer brands flexibility of orders, lower costs, and minimal risks and responsibilities: these are instead passed on to the workers. When workers unionized, brands would simply stop orders, ‘cutting-and-running’ to the next sweatshop.  Then, this happened domestically; now, a hundred years later, it is global.  Yet relationship between workers, factory and brand remain unchanged.

Globalized garment production fuses retrograde manufacturing practices with some of the most innovative techniques of labor domination.  At its most fundamental level the industry’s engine is no different than that of a century ago: overworked, underpaid women still crouch behind a sewing machine.   The only real change is the mechanization of just-in-time supply chains, which have advanced radically.  The garment sector uses variable production: supply must meet ever-changing consumer demands, seasonality, and ephemeral fashion trends.  The industry has remained labor-intense, not lending itself to the automation found in other sectors.  As in the early 20th century, brands have limited fixed capital investment in production, which decreases liability whilst increasing labor flexibility and capital mobility.  A brand’s profit margins are squeezed out through variable capital such as labor, whilst constant capital, like raw materials, remains largely fixed. Today’s global sweatshops, like New York’s garment sector pre-1930s, are marked by an absence of unions, below poverty-line wages, as well as miserable, unsafe conditions.

By all metrics, in fact, the conditions of workers in the global garment sector are worse today than one hundred years ago.  The women who died at Triangle would have earned the equivalent of £2 an hour today (adjusting for inflation); those who died at Tazreen, having toiled there seven days a week, 14-16 hours a day, earned less than 10% of that.  A study from the University of Colorado shows that since the early 2000s the garment sector has witnessed a decline in workers rights benchmarks, and an increase in violations of core labor standards. Sexual harassment and extra-economic forms of exploitation compound this even further in the feminized garment sector.

This is due to increasing pressure on supplier factories to compete with one another in a race to the bottom to secure business from brands.  Producing at the lowest costs entails constantly tightening the screws on workers, depressing wages and worsening conditions, whilst production targets steadily climb. Figures show that between 1989 and 2010 suppliers and countries with higher violations of workers rights increased their share of exports, whilst those demonstrating a higher level of workers rights have seen their exports drop.  The authors of the study argue for the need to change the uneven relationship between the buyers at the top of the global supply chain and the suppliers at the bottom.

End of the Sweatshop

Since the arrival of ‘globalization’ in the 1980s, an abundance of methods have been put forward to confront the abysmal conditions workers face in the global south.  Approaches have spanned from ‘fair trade’ and International Framework Agreements to more concrete voluntary codes of conduct, and the inclusion of the ‘social clause’ in trade agreements. Today, there is a sense of acceptance among union activists that two decades of effort to establish workers rights in the garment supply chain have done little to impact conditions, or dent capital’s relentless maximization of production: wages in real terms have fallen and unionization is nearly non-existent. The lesson here is that subcontracted production did not begin with ‘globalization’ and will not end in the foreseeable future, so a successful strategy has to circumvent the middle man to ensure responsibility is laid at the feet of the ‘real’ employer: the brand.

Confronting these structures a century ago, the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU), forerunner to today’s UNITE HERE, went directly to the buyers.  Back then, the brand that placed orders in factories and sold the products to retailers was known as a ‘jobber’.  The ILGWU maintained that the responsibility of labor conditions rested mostly on these jobbers, and as such any agreement should be made directly between workers and the jobber, not the factory owners.

The first Jobbers Agreement was born in 1922, but it was not until the 1930s, when the ILGWU locals went on strike, threatened additional industrial action, and conducted secondary retail boycotts that the agreements began to expand and deepen.  As Jobber’s Agreements proliferated, the membership of the ILGWU blossomed; it expanded from individual jobbers to a system that required jobbers to contract exclusively with a designated list of registered unionized factories.  The Jobbers Agreements heralded a new epoch for the life of the US garment worker, dramatically improving trade union density, factory conditions and living standards. By 1938 Life magazine, in its “Garment Workers At Play” cover story, declared that the era of sweatshops had come to an end: “thirty years ago …[the garment industry] stank of sweatshops” and now “the sweatshop is virtually gone.”

Jobbers Agreements changed the relationship between worker, factory owner, and buyer.  The agreements served to regulate the industry, preventing competition between factories based solely on labor costs.  The agreements helped curb the hegemony of fluid capital, which pitted workers against each other to produce more and more for less and less.  The ILGWU negotiated Jobbers Agreements effectively safeguarding labor costs, such as ensuring a living wage, between factory and buyer.  These succeeded in alleviating the core disputes over subcontracted labor now rampant at a global scale.

Once more, then as today the balance between the global brand/retailer (the buyer) and the subcontractor (the producer) was decidedly in favor of the buyer.  Yet through the power of collective bargaining and placing the responsibility squarely on the buyers themselves Jobbers Agreements oversaw the introduction of 35-hour workweeks for garment workers, defined pension plans, family health insurance plans and wages equivalent to autoworkers.  The agreements ended sweatshops in the US apparel industry – that is, of course, until the onset, four decades later, of ‘globalization’.

By the late 1990s, outside the domain of haute couture producers, the Jobber’s Agreements were on their last legs, fizzling out alongside a dwindling US garment industry and a new era of transnational capital mobility, free trade, and a rebirth of the now global sweatshop.  As capital reproduced itself around the world, the subcontracted production networks of New York began to erode becoming transnational subcontracted production networks.  The industrial district model characteristic of New York garments production was transformed into a global commodity chain structure.  At that time the waning ILGWU were still fighting to grasp the last vestiges of a soon-to-be barren US garment sector.

Return of Jobbers

In the 19th Century Marx, observing England’s sweatshops, described the ingenuity of the capitalist class for its ‘petty pilfering of minutes”.  Marx was describing something he saw again and again by employers: compulsory overtime, wage theft, and non-payment of severance.  These conditions mirror those of the global south where: “pilfering minutes” is part of the arithmetic of capital accumulation.   Indeed, one of the more pressing issues of global subcontracted labor today is the non-payment of severance, an almost inconsequential amount of money for transnational brands but an important one for those entitled to receive it.  By refusing compensation to workers brands not only retain a competitive advantage but also utilize a form of socioeconomic control, where the slightest agitation may result in a factory closure and non-compensation, a terrifying threat that hangs over the lives of workers and their families.  And this is where Adidas has made its mark.

Adidas is one of the world’s most powerful brands with one of the worst records on workers rights and wage theft.  It is a global leader in labor violations to its more than 1 million workers toiling away in 1,236 supplier factories in 63 countries. The demand for a Jobber’s Agreement is the most recent development in a yearlong campaign against Adidas.  The campaign began in Indonesia when a subcontracted factory closed down in April 2011, and Adidas failed to pay the $1.8m in severance it owed to the more than 2,800 former workers, despite swift payment from the other brands associated with the factory. The Adidas campaign rapidly escalated: solidarity demonstrations across the US and Europe were combined with the launch of the Badidascampaign in the US and UK, with major universities like Georgetown, College of William and Mary, Santa Clara University, Cornell, Rutgers, Oberlin College, and the University of Washington breaking their Adidas licensing contracts.

In demanding a Jobbers Agreement across international borders the workers of Adidas are reviving the tactic of their predecessors to curb the asymmetry between buyers and producers, subvert a regime of globalized capital and localized labor, and reveal the ugly truth of it all: that transnational brands were the employers all along.  The campaign recognizes how downward price stresses exerted by brands onto factories, and from factories to workers, play out in the new international division labor.  It is precisely because the conditions of workers in the global south resemble their antecedents of a century ago, that workers have deployed a similar strategy to confront it.

The ILGWU was partly a victim of the times, but also failed to envisage the possibility expanding its organizational capacity.  The workers of today seemed to have learned from the successes and pitfalls of the ILGWU, knowing that national constraints mean that labor can never outrun mobile capital within one city, state or country.  As such, todays sweatshops are being fought globally at the disparate points of production and consumption.

This demand by workers is the first time that factory-level unions producing in multiple countries have come together to force brands to recognize individual unions and negotiate with them collectively.  If history provides lessons for the future, a victory for the unions at Adidas producing factories could signal the beginning of the end for sweatshops in the globalized garment sector.

For if the 1930s New York is an instructive model, then as Adidas workers’ unions succeed in negotiating an agreement, those in other subcontracted factories will emulate this strategy, demanding Jobber’s Agreements of their own; unions will spread; resistant brands will be threatened with strikes and secondary boycotts; factory unions will gain recognition; wages will rise, conditions will improve.  We may be one step closer to ending the garment sweatshop as we know it, abating a geo-economy decidedly driven by ‘market pressures’, and abolishing some of the more grotesque excesses of capitalist exploitation – all whilst acknowledging that the end of the global sweatshop is barely the beginning.

Ashok Kumar is a a PhD candidate at Oxford University in Economic Geography focusing on global supply chains, trade unions and the garment industry.  He tweets @broseph_stalin