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Working In These Times

Wednesday, Oct 28, 2009, 1:19 pm

Corporate Sweatshop Apologists Star at Anti-Slavery Conference

BY Jeff Ballinger

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A worker labors at a shoe factory in December 2006 in Chongqing Municipality, China.   (Photo by China Photos/Getty Images)

I just couldn’t believe what I was hearing. During the Global Forum on Human Trafficking held earlier this month in California, a presenter expressed her frustration that some consumers would continue to shun GAP or Nike, based on an outdated sweatshop view of the companies. 

“Have they ever been in those factories? ...I have been in those factories," Tara Coleman said. "[T[here’s [sic] some really great factories out there...” She ended her thought by chastising consumers (like me) that need to do “some homework.” (A video containing Coleman's comments is available here.)

There was a palpable sense from Coleman that we fixed the sweatshop problem, and our expertise may now be applied to slavery and the forced labor issue. The most disturbing part about the pair of "experts" on the panel (Patricia Jurewicz was also on it) is not that they used to work in Reebok or Adidas or GAP Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) shops but, rather, that they now work for nonprofits!

Yes, dear friends, we now have the nauseating spectacle of the self-same CSR folks who drove a stake through the heart of the real anti-sweatshop movement (through phony “compliance” and “social audit” strategies) coming full circle to “lead” the next great struggle as “activists.”

Some months back I came to terms with the fact that Nike’s CSR people would be treated like rock stars at “triple bottom line” and sustainability leadership conferences all over the globe.

After all, Nike spends tens of millions of dollars per year on CSR and made these well-paying jobs de rigueur throughout a wide swathe of Europe and U.S.-based contracting-out brands (toys, electronics, shoes, even office supplies). 

It has become so difficult to challenge the low-wage reality out there that Hannah Jones, Nike’s top CSR person—in a voice dripping with contempt for the stupid question of one CNBC reporter—said: “there is no magic wand” and, “we don't think there's anything, you know, that you can suddenly do overnight like flipping the switch and artificially hiking wages in factories.” 

Jones's pique and ineptitude is a measure of how infrequently she even has to deal with the wage issue from an actual journalist. Much more common are the fawning portraits of determined CSR world-changers like this one by Joe Nocera of the New York Times. (The funny thing is, Nocera would excoriate the practitioners of Socially Responsible Investing in an award-winning column only six months later).

If you would like to join a discussion about CSR operations, please join me here.

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Jeff Ballinger is a veteran anti-sweatshop campaigner whose writing has been published in Harper's, NY Daily News, The Wall Street Journal, Dissent, Brown Economic Review and the Los Angeles Times. He is currently on a research fellowship in the political science department of McMaster University, in Hamilton, Ontario.

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