In Bangladesh, young women making Wal-Mart shirts are forced to work 87 hours a week. They are paid $0.09 to $0.20 an hour and receive no health care or maternity leave. The Bangladeshi labor law sets the workweek at 48 hours with a maximum of 12 hours a week of overtime.
Children as young as twelve work in a factory in Cambodia that manufactures clothing for The Gap. They live in rat-infested dormitories without running water and are subject to forced overtime, a seven-day workweek and physical/emotional abuse. Most of the children had not seen their parents for six months at the time of a BBC interview. As usual, when the conditions of the sweatshop were exposed, The Gap pulled their business from the factory and moved on to another sweatshop instead of taking their responsibilities of improving conditions.
Sweatshops are prevalent throughout the world and big companies readily utilize their rock-bottom prices and catering attitudes. The apparel industry is one sector of popular commerce that uses and abuses sweatshops, but they are not alone; sporting goods, electronics, shoes, sneakers, coffee, and toys are among the industries that are guilty of turning their heads to obscene working environments and slave wages. The conditions of sweatshops and the effects they have on the workers were introduced in last month's issue, and J. Crew, Ann Taylor, Eddie Bauer and Abercrombie & Fitch were among the exposed companies using sweatshop labor. Now we will take a deeper look into some of the most popular brands in the clothing and shoe business: Nike, The Gap, Benetton and Wal-Mart.
Once dubbed as the "McDonalds of the clothing industry", Benetton has over 7000 shops and a total turnover of $2 billion. Benetton has been largely criticized for its publicity advertisements that over-simplify social issues in an attempt to portray itself as "socially committed", but meanwhile, the company utilizes sweatshop labor in the manufacturing of their products.
Benetton's unresponsible labor practices have been publicly announced and documented. Although its foreign suppliers locations and numbers are unknown (and will not be revealed), information has surfaced that shows Benettons true colors, which are far from "united". Female workers at Riese Maglieria in Sicily (one of the poorest areas in Italy) were told to schedule their marriages and pregnancies in shifts as to not disrupt production. The Bermuda factory in Istanbul has been exposed heavily in the media, showing eleven and thirteen year old kids at work. (Meanwhile, Benetton has run ads portraying child labor and designates a portion of their website to child labor issues!) Corriere della Sera (a leading Italian newspaper) published an interview with one of the children who told reporters of exploitation and physical abuse. A female worker at one of Benetton's suppliers in Romania was interviewed by researchers. She reported that she had to work an average of 240-260 hours each month to reach her quota and receive her basic wages, which are far from adequate.
Benetton has attempted to clean up its act, which is more than what other companies can claim. They have signed an agreement with the Italian and Turkish trade unions called "principles for clean production". This agreement provides for basic labor rights, but does not mention the illegal employment of underage children. Although it is a step in the right direction, the public must ensure that Benetton follows through and becomes the responsible and socially conscious company that they want the public to believe that they are.
Gap Inc. owns Old Navy, Banana Republic, GapKids and babyGap and is the largest clothing company in the United States. Unsurprisingly, Gap Inc. profits more from the global sweatshop system than any other clothing company. Estimated annual sales reach $13.7 billion with net profits of $877.5 million each year. CEO Millard Drexler's annual compensation was an astonishing $39 million in 2000! Meanwhile, a typical Gap worker's wage in Cambodia is a mere $0.21 an hour.
The Gap has been in the hotseat for quite some time. In 1995, Gap was the focus point of an anti-sweatshop campaign spearheaded by the National Labor Committee due to union-busting in El Salvador factories. Workers and anti-sweatshop groups UNITE, Global Exchange, Sweatshop Watch and the Asian Law Caucus has filed a billion dollar lawsuit against Gap and 17 other retailers for labor abuses in Saipan. Union members often demonstrate against The Gap, and anti-sweatshop organizations are hot on their tail. The Gap, however, refuses to change its greedy ways.
The Gap produces most of its clothing in lesser-developed countries. They refuse to disclose information on all of its factories, but it is known that they produce in Russia, El Salvador, Honduras, Indonesia, Macao, Mexico and Saipan, Cambodia and Africa. And Gap Inc. claims to be "committed" to socially responsible business practices. As stated on its website, "Social responsibility, to us, means getting involved in organizations that address the needs of youth and neighborhoods. It means we want garment workers to be treated with dignity and respect. And it means minimizing our effect on the environment." Can you trust a cat when he says that he didn't eat the mouse? Let's take a look at how well The Gap lives up to its statements.
According to Gap Inc.'s Code of Vendor Contact, the company has strict guidelines for the factorys that it chooses to do business with. "The factory pays workers wages and provides benefits without regard to race, color, gender, nationality, religion, age, maternity or marital status," the Code states in section III-B. Yet multiple worker and investigation reports show otherwise: workers are often forced to sign "shadow contracts" which waive the freedom to attend religious services, quit or marry. "Factories shall set working hours, wages and overtime pay in compliance with all applicable laws. Workers shall be paid at least the minimum legal wage or a wage that meets local industry standards, whichever is greater...(section VI)...Hourly wage rates for overtime must be higher than the rates for the regular work shift. (section VI-B)," continues the Code. Reports show that workers are forced to work 12-16 hour workdays without overtime pay. A garment worker from Guatemala spoke of the horrible conditions in the factories, such as being forced to work until 4am and then reporting back to work four hours later, being issued a warning letter for staying in the bathroom for five minutes, and pregnant workers demoted to lesser-paying jobs. A delegation from the National Labor Committee in 1999 reported that in Honduras, Gap factory workers are forced to have pregnancy tests, forced to work overtime, and are pressured to meet extremely high production goals on a wage of $4 a day, which meets only 1/3 of their basic needs.
Section VII of the Code addresses working conditions. "The factory does not engage in or permit physical acts to punish or coerce workers.(section A) The factory does not engage in or permit psychological coercion or any other form of non-physical abuse, including threats of violence, sexual harassment, screaming or other verbal abuse. (section B) The factory complies with all applicable laws regarding working conditions, including worker health and safety, sanitation, fire safety, risk protection, and electrical, mechanical and structural safety. (section C) The factory maintains throughout working hours clean and sanitary toilet areas and places no unreasonable restrictions on their use. (section P)." Meanwhile, Honduras factory workers must perform in a factory that locks its bathrooms, Guatemalan workers are yelled at and hit, and the OSHA (US Occupational Safety and Health Association) has cited well over 1000 violations, including insufficient clean drinking water, blocked exits, fire hazards, unsanitary restrooms, and exposed electrical wiring, to name a few.
Additionally, factories are crowded and hot with poor ventilation. Housing is surrounded by inward-pointing barbed wire enclosed barracks. Guards monitor workers, who are subject to lockdowns, curfews, physical harm and threats. Workers are often told that they cannot form unions. These examples are all against the company's own Code.
While The Gap will freely distribute a copy of their Code of Vendor Conduct to anyone who requests it on their website, it is clear that their "efforts" are merely on paper. The Gap is consistently in the media for sweatshops and other labor abuses. It is not enough to publish and distribute a Code to interested individuals in the Western world - the company must follow up with the code and take responsibility in ensuring that their factories are safe, clean and functioning properly. They must ensure that the workers are paid fairly (the $0.21 an hour wage in Cambodia is far from a sustainable wage) and are not treated like slaves and second-class citizens. They must actively take part in enforcing their Code, because so far, it is merely a document that seems to be meant more for the concerned public than for changing the conditions in the factories.
Michael Jordan is paid about $20 million a year to promote Nike shoes. Tiger Woods makes about $55,555/day for promoting Nike products. Nike CEO Phil Knight has a net worth of $5.8 billion. A typical Nike factory worker makes about $1.25/day, which is extremely inadequate and impossible to live on. In response to the conditions of the workers in Indonesia who make Nike products, Michael Jordan was quoted as saying, "I don't know the complete situation. Why should I? I'm trying to do my job. Hopefully, Nike will do the right thing, whatever that might be." Welcome to Nike's world.
How long do you think it would take you to stitch a shoulder seam? It better not take you more than 30.35 seconds if you are a factory worker in the Dominican Republic, and that is for both shoulders. An American anti-sweatshop activist found Nike's SAM requirements (Standard Allotted Minutes), which lists how much time Nike will allow for each step of production, down to the 1000th of a second. In fact, the total production time, from raw material to a bagged kiddie sweatshirt, is about 6.6 minutes. In the Dominican Republic, workers typically receive $0.70 an hour; the labor cost of the sweatshirt that costs $25 in Macys is about $0.11!
Indonesian Nike factory workers receive approximately Rp 440,000 per month (after a very significant raise due to pressure from the outside). Yet in order to meet their essential needs, living at a poverty/survival level, workers need about Rp 700,000 per month, or about $3.07/day (based on a five day work week). Workers in other places make even less.
"In the evening we met with workers from a Nike factory in Balaraja. We were able to interview a husband and wife who both worked in a Nike shoe factory. They are two months behind on their rent. They do not make enough to eat. The wife cannot get pregnant and she believes it is because of the chemicals she has to use in the factory. What she told us next was incredible. She said that when monitors were visiting the factory she was told to lie about the chemicals she uses. Every day she uses R105, which is very harmful. She was told by the factory management say that she uses R107, which is not as harmful," writes anti-sweatshop campaigner Jim from nikewages.org. "Susanti has been sick with a cough and fever for months now... Her parents do not have enough money to bring her to the doctor... So late this afternoon we left their humble home to visit the medical clinic. After arriving at the clinic we only had to wait a short time for Susanti to see the doctor. He examined her and prescribed some antibiotics for her cough and fever and a cream for a skin rash she has. The exam cost 15000Rp, the medicine 75000Rp, all totaled, 90000Rp and this clinic moderates its prices in comparison to other clinics because it caters to the lowest economic class in Tangerang. Nike's healthcare package for its workers is an allowance of 200000 per year. So in one visit to the doctor for a sick young child, almost half of that allowance would be spent. What is even more distressing is that the "allowance" is a reimbursement allowance. Meaning, if a worker wanted to go to the doctor, they would have to come up with the money first and then they would be reimbursed for it." Most of the children of Nike's factory workers (as well as workers in other factories, such as Adidas) are malnourished and sick because their parents are not paid enough to provide sufficient food.