How We Can Hold American Companies that Use Sweatshop Labor Accountable

Erik Loomis

Textile workers at a sweatshop in Dhaka, Bangladesh, the same city where the Tazreen and Rana Plaza factory disasters occurred. (Flickr / Asian Development Bank)

A small news item in the Mumbai Mirror in late October caught my attention. A zipper sweatshop in the city of Ghatkopar was the home of several young boys who were routinely beaten and tortured by the owner. The story quoted an 11-year-old rescued from the sweatshop. Speaking about owner Rajdeep Chaudhary, the boy said:

He used to hit the other two boys with a thick stick. Just like me he did not take them to a doctor even when they were bleeding badly. Finally one day last month, the two boys somehow managed to escape from the factory. Chaudhary did not even bother to look for them, but he started locking me up during the nights after that.

The boys in this sweatshop worked 16-hour days, were rarely fed and even starved, and lived in horrible conditions all too common in the global apparel industry. Such conditions are, if anything, encouraged in the industry by the multinational corporations who have long looked to avoid responsibility for their actions by outsourcing and subcontracting work to ever poorer nations.

Without a system of global accountability for American corporations contracting in other nations, such horrors will continue to occur.

We as labor activists must begin to think about how to build international labor solidarity by fighting for legislation that would create this accountability — specifically giving workers around the world the right to sue in American courts if companies or their subcontractors violated basic labor rights such as workplace violence, avoiding paying a nation’s minimum wage, or pollution discharges that sicken and kill people.

Despite recent Supreme Court decisions reducing the power of international agencies to sue in U.S. courts under the Alien Tort Statute of 1789, empowering workers to demand accountability through this law is our best bet to working toward better labor conditions worldwide. This law gives foreigners the right to sue if they have suffered from actions in violation of the law of nations or a treaty of the United States.”

In nations like India, Bangladesh, Vietnam, Cambodia and around south and southeast Asia, a system of apparel production hunts down the world’s poor for exploitation without consequence for American companies. Two major incidents in the past two years have brought this system to Americans’ attention.

First, in 2012, the Tazreen factory fire in Bangladesh killed 123 workers. Second, in 2013, the Rana Plaza factory collapse, also in Bangladesh, killed 1,137 workers, making it likely the most deadly industrial disaster in the history of the Industrial Revolution.

Both factories existed to supply rich world nations with cheap clothing. In fact, the U.S. Marines had clothing made at Tazreen, as well as Walmart. Benetton and JC Penney were among the companies contracting clothing at Rana Plaza. These apparel companies demand the low-cost production that creates unsafe factories, but face no responsibility for their actions — the result of two centuries of the apparel industry seeking to avoid accountability for the sweatshops they demand.

At one time, this clothing was made in the United States. But from the very beginning of industrial apparel production, the textile industry led the way in exploitation and capital mobility when workers protested the harsh conditions of their work and lives.

New England manufacturers attempted to treat workers with respect, providing the Lowell Mill Girls boarding houses under close supervision, famous speakers like Ralph Waldo Emerson and educational opportunities. But the long hours and low pay led to some of the nation’s first unions by the 1840s. The mill owners turned to Irish immigrants, and Italian and Jewish immigrants by the late nineteenth century. States began passing legislation ending child labor and limiting the hours of work.

In 1894, Alabama repealed its child labor law to attract New England textile corporations. This succeeded and New England textile companies began moving to the American South. The era of capital mobility in the industry began. Apparel companies were early pioneers of contracting production as well, as the home sweatshops of the late 19th century turned into the larger sweatshops of the early 20th.

The Triangle Fire that killed 146 workers in 1911 brought the horrors of this system to the public, creating laws cracking down on unsafe workplaces. The industry’s response was to move more production to the South. Southern workers struck as well. By the 1960s, companies began moving production to Mexico and then to Central America and Asia.

Each time workers protest their conditions or fight for a union, companies begin looking for the next country to exploit — thus a system where 11-year-old children can be making zippers in slave-like conditions.

Companies like Walmart and contractors like Rajdeep Chaudhary have long subjected the people of India to the consequences of unregulated globalized production. On the night of December 2, 1984, a Union Carbide pesticide production facility in Bhopal emitted a gas leak. Somewhere between 3,787 and 16,000 people died in the next days, months and years.

Union Carbide executives could easily have prevented this leak. It could have used stainless steel in the factory, the lack of which is what caused the leak. It could have had a robust safety system, but instead laid off half its employees and cut standards of safety training and education between 1980 and 1984 to save money. It could have printed operating manuals in Hindi, but instead only provided them in English, which most workers didn’t read.

Instead of safety, Union Carbide executives emphasized profits. They suffered no consequences. Yet if anything, Union Carbide was held more accountable than the apparel manufacturers using the zippers of Ghatkopar. At least people angry about Bhopal knew what company was responsible for that. Where do these zippers go? What companies contract with this particular sweatshop owner? It’s almost impossible to find out.

The globalized system of production has made India a dumping ground for chemical production and a place where American apparel companies exploit child labor. India is committing ever more strongly to this model of exploitation. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has ridden a wave of Hindu nationalism into office, but central to his agenda is the expansion of neoliberal policies favoring the wealthy and international corporations. He advocates repealing workers’ rights and environmental law in order to favor corporate interests. Modi recently changed pollution regulations that limited chemical plant development, attempting to become the world’s center of chemical production by welcoming polluters. In short, his agenda seems to come to down to Bhopal for All Indians!”

The only way workers like the 11-year-old boy in Ghatkopar will see their lives improve is if we demand global standards on production with real legal consequences for companies who violate them. The contracting system that creates layers of separation between multinational corporations and workers serves to increase exploitation and profits. It also makes it much harder for consumers in the U.S. and other countries to demand products are produced ethically, for two principle reasons.

First, unlike the Triangle Fire, where reforms of working conditions happened because Americans saw workers die making their clothes, we cannot see the lives of Bangladeshis and Sri Lankans who die making ours. Second, because these corporations lack legal liability for their production, they can claim they know nothing about the working conditions of their suppliers. If Walmart, Target or Gap buy these zippers, do they even know it? When these companies have been busted for using sweatshop labor, they frequently claim that they had no production contracts there. Given the byzantine mazes of contracting these companies do, they may be telling the truth. But a lack of public accounting means we cannot know.

Whether at Bhopal or a zipper sweatshop, multinational corporations need to be held accountable for what happens where they site factories or contract their production. Keeping clear records that show where their clothes are actually produced should be their responsibility.

Specifically, we need to create legal accountability for corporations. Voluntary agreements are basically meaningless — enforcement with consequences is necessary. We need international labor standards that companies must comply with if they want to sell their products in the United States. Workers should have the right to sue in American courts when American companies violate basic standards of labor rights.

If Walmart or Gap wants to contract production to Bangladesh or India, that’s fine. But if their factory collapses or if workers are subjected to slave labor, the American companies using those zippers need to be held legally accountable. Subcontracting cannot be a tool to exploit the world’s poor. We must articulate new ways of holding corporations accountable if we are ever to stop this exploitation.

We are very far from such a system being implemented today. Vicious corporate attacks on organized labor in the United States mean that we are desperately trying to hold on to what labor rights we have left in this country. But those rights have collapsed in part because of the export of union jobs offshore, undermining the best tool American workers have for maintaining a dignified life.

Without granting workers of the world legal power in American or international courts, union jobs will continue leaving the United States and they will leave Guatemala or Vietnam if workers unionize there. That legal framework isn’t happening tomorrow and it isn’t happening in the next election cycle. But this is the long-term change to labor law we need if we are to give workers around the world a chance to live dignified lives.

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Erik Loomis is an assistant professor of history at the University of Rhode Island.
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