We want union rights, not just codes of conduct

Submitted by AWL on 1 June, 2003 - 9:48

By Mick Duncan

The Ethical Trading Initiative conference took place in Westminster, London on 21 May. There was much talk of corporate responsibility, codes of conduct and good funding opportunities for NGOs. Meanwhile, a few miles south in Brixton a rather different meeting was taking place.
London No Sweat hosted the first of what will become a regular series of meetings at the Ritzy Cinema with the help of Labour Behind the Label. We heard speakers from Sri Lanka, China and Mexico on the international fight against sweatshop labour.

It would be wrong to completely dismiss codes of conduct and all the people involved in the ETI. Codes of conduct can be useful organising tools — for example, they enable you to tell workers in a factory producing for Nike say, that the company has a code supporting the freedom of association and the end of forced overtime. That can be vital for a union trying to instil confidence in its membership to fight for improvements. Many involved in the ETI are genuinely working to help improve the lot for sweatshop workers, and do not always have a top-down, “let us help you” approach. However there are problems implicit in the ETI approach that has, at least in part, incorporated many of the NGO opponents of sweatshops.

The problem was demonstrated graphically by an article in the Guardian Weekend magazine, during the week of the ETI conference. The article highlighted some of the awful conditions under which clothes are made. It bemoaned the fact that consumers are often kept in the dark about these conditions and have no power to make an informed choice to buy “sweatshop-free” goods. It even gave a quick suggestion of a few websites to check out for alternative sources of clothing. However none of these recommended websites advertise that their products were made by unionised labour — an irrelevance to the average Guardian reader perhaps? And the article offered no guide to opposing sweatshops.

Solidarity readers won’t be surprised by the Grauniad’s middle class obsession with consumers. However we should be offended and angry about their complete ignorance of the workers involved in the sweatshop trade. No Sweat certainly doesn’t exist to alleviate the conscience of Guardian readers. We want to assist in the alleviation of the conditions of work faced by garment workers!

At our meeting, Catalina, from the CAT workers’ support centre in Puebla, Mexico, thanked No Sweat for the campaign’s solidarity in their struggle against the local bosses and against Puma in Matamoros Garment. She updated us on the current situation there. The factory — which closed down after international pressure — will reopen, but with a new name and in a new location. This manoeuvre will ensure the workers will not receive severance pay and will have to reapply for their jobs. The Puma workers now need renewed international solidarity, support them in their struggle — to rally to their call when we are needed to put pressure on Puma, the Mexican Embassy or whoever — to get their jobs back and to get edible food, decent pay and fundamentally the right to organise and have recognised their own union.

This message was passionately enforced by Anton Marcus from the garment workers’ union in Sri Lanka. He told how large trans-national corporations are moving from the Free Trade Zones (where no tax is paid and labour law violations are ignored) in Sri Lanka because wages are “too high”. The new location may even pay a good wage relative to their average in the new country. Unfortunately for those workers in Sri Lanka, that wage is lower than theirs and, in order to maximise the profits of Nike, Gap, Levis or whoever it may be, their jobs will go. This contravenes no code of conduct.

Anton described how in many factories the existence of a code is used to keep the union out — “we have a code, we don’t need a union” is the frequent message from management. The key issue for Anton, and for the workers he struggles to organise, is union recognition — union power. The only sure guarantee that a set of conditions will be met, day in, day out, is that the workers have the power to make sure of it — their own union.

Monina Wong from the Christian Industrial Committee in Hong Kong expressed why union organisation is so important for workers in China, the sweatshop of the world. If a code of conduct is imported from the UK or US, or even if a union that has been recognised and forced on the workers by a company (as Reebok have done recently) appears in a factory in China, it may bring genuine improvements to those workers (and these can not be ignored!), but it affords them no ownership or control over their own working life.

Why should you or I decide (never mind the boss of a big company) precisely what conditions workers should work under? Surely that is for them to determine, through their own struggles? Improvements imposed from above, at the insistence of a contractor, arrive in the same package that tells the workers to produce X number of shoes to Y specified quality control standards and for Z price (usually X is more than last year, Y is tighter and Z is less). At worst this tells workers that their conditions of labour are part of a package delivered by a decree from the other side of the Earth — not unlike decrees issued by the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party, just from further away.

A wage gain or a cut in hours, an improvement in living conditions or safety in the workplace won by workers organising a union and struggling themselves, for their own demands, shows them that they are not simply pawns in the scheme of the bosses or the bureaucrats, but that they have the power to determine the scheme of things themselves.

This is fortunately a lesson that is spreading quickly in Mexico from Matamoros, and Mexmode to the Volkswagen car plants in Puebla. It is a lesson that will grow in China and help build a movement that can sweep aside the brutal Chinese regime and many other oppressors beside it.

The anti-sweatshop movement, needs to listen to these workers and their representatives. We are not here for Guardian readers, we are here for garment workers.

Can you go to GMB Conference?

The GMB general union is holding its biennial congress in Blackpool from 9-12 June. No Sweat will be sharing a stall with London region of the union and working to promote a No Sweat appeal to help the CAT with their unionisation work in Mexico. More details of that appeal in the next issue of Solidarity or on the No Sweat website.
If you can spare any time to help out, get in touch and volunteer —we need your help!

Protests target shoe importer

A dozen anti-sweatshop activists protested at the headquarters of the of the International Shoe Agency in central London on Friday 23 May to bmark the anniversary of a fire which killed 43 workers.
Shree Jee International, a footwear factory in Agra (India) supplying British shoe shops, caught fire on 24 May 2002 killing nearly a quarter of the workforce.
The factory had only one door in use at the time. All seven windows were closed and heavily secured with wire mesh. A second door, connecting to an adjacent factory, was locked.
The workers say that a lighted cigarette or match thrown by the owner started the blaze.
The fire ignited the chemicals stored in the room next to the door, blocking any exit. Those rescued owe their lives to workers from the neighbouring factory who broke down the connecting door.

A fact-finding team found that numerous laws had been broken, including safety procedures and inspection regulations, and concluded that the company owner — who is now in jail — the local authority and the foreign buyers were all at fault.

The ISA is a company importing shoes for a number of British High Street shoe shops, and their details were found on shipping documents retrieved from the fire.

The ISA have taken no action in regard to this incident, nor have they taken steps to ensure such a tragedy does not happen again in their supplier factories. The ISA have refused to respond to numerous attempts to contact them by Labour Behind the Label and consumers.

For more details about what you can do see www.labourbehindthelabel.org website, urgent appeals section.

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