Monitoring Sweatshops: Workers, Consumers, and the Global Apparel Industry by Jill Esbenshade


Monitoring Sweatshops: Workers, Consumers, and the Global Apparel Industry
By Jill Esbenshade

Monitoring Sweatshops - Workers, Consumers, and the Global Apparel Industry


Preface IX
Acknowledgments Xlii
Introduction: Monitoring, Sweatshops, and Labor Relations 1
1 The Rise and Fall of the Social Contract in the Apparel Industry 13
2 The Social-Accountability Contract 33
3 Private Monitoring in Practice 60
4 Weaknesses and Conflicts in Private Monitoring 89
5 The Development of International Monitoring 119
6 Examining International Codes of Conduct and Monitoring Efforts 145
7 The Struggle for Independent Monitoring 165
Conclusion: Workers, Consumers, and
Independent Monitoring 198
Appendix 1: Confessions of a Sweatshop Monitor by Joshua Samuel Brown 209
Appendix 2: Research Methods 214
Appendix 3: List of Interviews 219
Appendix 4: Acronyms and Abbreviations 226
Notes 229
References 249
Index 261

How DID I come to study monitoring in the apparel industry? As the great-granddaughter, granddaughter, and niece of Jewish garment retailers, one could say that I was born to the subject. As the sister-in-law of two Salvadoran garment workers, one could say that I married into it. As a former staff member at the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU), I seemed to come to it through my own professional and political development. And as someone who has been schooled in ethnic studies and focused her graduate career on the plight of immigrants, especially in regard to labor, I was educated into it. But perhaps, as they say, all roads lead to Rome.

In any case, I came upon the subject of monitoring in the garment industry in 1996, as the Gap campaign took off and the press began to link maquilas in El Salvador to garment makers in the United States. I was searching for a dissertation topic at the time. As I embarked on my research, I discovered that there was a ripe case study much closer to home. In my native Los Angeles, garment manufacturers were engaging in a new and innovative experiment of monitoring contractors, and it appeared to be having some positive effects. The monitoring program was winning awards, receiving praise, and apparently making a difference. Yet it had detractors. My imagination was captured. Were these improvements real? And most interesting for me, how did workers themselves feel about this apparent solution?

I was intrigued by the problem and, to boot, it appeared that there was a ready-made collection of data waiting to be explored. The ILGWU (now part of a merged union, UNITE) and numerous workers had filed lawsuits against jeans-maker GUESS?, Inc., and obtained boxes of documentation on the company’s monitoring practices, including workers’ testimony, monitoring reports, and depositions of company officials and monitors. What graduate student could walk away from an interesting question accompanied by thousands of pages of primary data? Unfortunately, a judge’s confidentiality order indefinitely delayed my access to the legal files. But by the time I discovered this, I was already hooked.

So I turned to the live sources themselves rather than their paper counterparts, which turned out to be a wholly positive turn of events. Nothing could have substituted for actually observing during monitoring visits. The people I talked with were more forthcoming than I had imagined, thanks in no little measure to my sympathetic female ear, I am sure. Moreover, walking into a hot, dim tenth-floor factory in a downtown Los Angeles tenement and then drinking cold soda on a plush leather couch in a manufacturer’s air-conditioned lobby was a contrast that only the lived experience could really capture.

During my fieldwork in Los Angeles, monitoring was for the most part still an intellectual curiosity for me. It was a concrete phenomenon that existed in the real world of workers, and I felt that it had some potentially important theoretical implications. On returning to Berkeley and becoming active in the student movement and with a group of anti-sweatshop activists in the San Francisco Bay area, it became a passion.

However, I would contend that my analysis led me to my passion, not vice versa. I became involved with the student movement and with constructing an alternative to private monitoring after conducting fieldwork in Los Angeles. It was my research, not my a priori political sense, that led me to a thorough understanding of the flaws in the current system. I wanted to use the information I gathered, and my analysis of it, to change that system. This, of course, is not novel. There is a strong tradition of applied research in many fields, including sociology and ethnic studies. From my research I wrote a policy paper that was distributed widely in the anti-sweatshop movement and probably influenced the debate. I also testified before a California State Senate committee on new garment legislation, which was passed and is discussed in this book. In addition, I participated, as I said, in the student movement in the University of California system to force the administrators to adopt a strong code of conduct and to convince them to join the Worker Rights Consortium (WRC), an alternative monitoring organization. I was the graduate-student representative on the system-wide advisory committee on these issues. I believe that my in-depth knowledge of the subject significantly contributed to the committee’s work. I also helped coordinate a local group of antisweatshop activists, lawyers, and students to develop a model monitoring plan (known as the UCAS, or University Coalition Against Sweatshops, proposal). I then represented UCAS in discussions of our proposal with activists and unionists in New York. From these meetings we developed a working group. After making drastic revisions, we submitted the plan to the United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS), and I continued to participate in the development of what is now the WRC, serving on its advisory council and then the governing board.

Did I influence the developments that are described in this book? I believe I did. Is that bad? I would argue that it is not. I am committed to good scholarship; I am also committed to social justice. I hope that the former can contribute to the latter. I believe it can. But it cannot in a time lapse, and it cannot by dividing our world into “academic interests” and “political interests.” My greatest contribution to the movement for social justice may be the information and analysis that I, as an academic, can provide. To withhold such contributions would, for me, be ethically inappropriate; to delay such contributions would cripple them. I am proud that at the very least I contributed to improvements within the area I was studying. These improvements have helped some workers achieve concrete changes in their workplaces and their lives. I hope workers will continue to be able to capitalize on alternative forms of monitoring. I also hope that my scholarship can inform the academic community and move forward theoretical debates. In that hope, I offer this book.

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