Human Rights Dialogue (1994–2005): Series 2, No. 4 (Fall 2000): Who Can Protect Workers' Rights? The Workplace Codes of Conduct Debates: Articles: Codes of Conduct Don't Work: A View from the Factory Floor

Oct 6, 2000

Big retailers such as Donna Karan New York (DKNY) and Sears Roebuck walk away with billions of dollars by stripping workers of their rights and crushing the life out of them. Retailers sit at the top of a subcontracting pyramid and claim zero responsibility for inhuman and illegal working conditions in sweatshops. Retailers hang back looking innocent, and let the blame fall on manufacturers. Manufacturers duck and run, leaving contractors (the factory owners) to blame. Factory owners squeeze profits out of their workers while portraying themselves as victims. Retailers, the sellers of the clothing made in garment factories, hold the most power in this subcontracting system as they decide what goods to sell and at what price they will purchase them. Manufacturers must offer them a good deal. Competition among manufacturers to sell their garments to retailers—on top of manufacturers' thirst for profits—drives down the prices that trickle into workers wages.

In my organizing work with the Chinese Staff and Workers' Association (CSWA) in New York City, I have seen how toothless voluntary compliance measures and codes of conduct actually are in holding retailers responsible for working conditions. I recently worked on a case in which workers from two of the largest sweatshops in Brooklyn were forced to make Street Beat Sportswear garments for more than 137 hours in a single week for retailers like Sears. These workers were owed almost $300,000 in minimum wage and overtime pay and damages. Three years earlier, Street Beat Sportswear had signed two compliance agreements with the Department of Labor (DOL). On paper, these compliance agreements looked good. Street Beat agreed to use contractors that obeyed the law. But when the workers traveled to Washington, D.C. to demand that the agreements be enforced, the DOL said there was nothing that it could do. In fact, the DOL has never prosecuted manufacturers for violations of compliance agreements. The DOL simply came back and did what it usually does—it asked the workers to settle for $58,000, less than one fifth of what they were legally owed.

The Street Beat workers quickly realized that if they wanted their rights they would have to organize and take their futures into their own hands. They decided to join with the CSWA and enlist the support of other workers from other industries. At CSWA, we knew that it would be futile to wait for yet another compliance agreement to be signed. We have seen that the government agencies that are supposed to enforce basic laws lack the will to confront the sweatshop problems in this country. As one Street Beat worker said, “In the factory the boss knows no human kindness. Even though I’m in the U.S. I have not been able to enjoy any human rights.”

We not only asked for the wages owed but also launched a citywide campaign to challenge mandatory overtime. We demanded that Sears commit to ensuring that all its goods be produced in law-abiding factories. And to preempt the standard tactic of corporations to threaten to move work away in retaliation against our organizing, we also demanded that the company make sure that 75 percent of its goods be produced in local communities. In the face of death threats and fear of violence, the Street Beat workers struggled, organized, and eventually recouped the wages they were owed and an additional sum for damages.

Manufacturers and retailers, with vast financial resources, will often rely on the lengthy, sometimes years’ long, legal process to demoralize workers. This group of workers not only used the legal process to file suit against the apparel makers, it also organized its coworkers, galvanized the support of workers of all trades in the community, and publicly exposed illegal conditions in the industry.

The workers and their struggle became central in bringing together garment workers and young workers in other industries to organize and fight for better conditions. With each passing day, more workers and supporters came forward. Instead of waiting and becoming demoralized, the workers became more active. The struggle and the courage of these workers have inspired many other garment workers to come forward with complaints.

One of the many workers who became involved in the Street Beat campaign was Oi Kwan Lai, a garment worker at a Donna Karan factory in midtown Manhattan. For six years she had been forced to work mandatory overtime without overtime pay and in a factory with prison-like conditions—padlocked bathrooms, surveillance cameras, constant verbal abuse, retaliatory firings, body searches and frisking. When she was not permitted to even take a phone call from her husband while her daughter was sick at home, Mrs. Lai decided to take steps to expose how bad conditions in this country are. She sought the help of CSWA’s garment workers’ committee and launched a campaign to expose the terrible conditions that she endured while sewing garments for Donna Karan. Her courage and initiative emboldened many other Latina and Chinese DKNY workers to step forward.

DKNY’s immediate response was not to pay these workers or improve the conditions at its factory but to shut the factory down, as a way to shut up its workers. These women have launched the first class-action suit on behalf of all Donna Karan garment workers in New York State, totally bypassing the many layers of the subcontracting pyramid to hit the employer at the top. Aside from demanding their owed wages, the women are insisting that Donna Karan re-open its factories, ensure that its women workers will no longer suffer harassment, and not close factories when workers speak up for their rights. Last, the workers are demanding that DKNY commit to producing clothing under legal conditions.

Donna Karan's public relations defense of these deplorable conditions is: "We use union contractors." Yet Kwan Lai is a member of Local 22 of UNITE!, which did not keep her from being underpaid and abused. In Manhattan's Chinatown, close to 90 percent of the factories are union shops. Yet, according to research released by the DOL, 90 percent of the factories in Chinatown are in violation of basic labor laws. Even in these union shops, workers are being paid a wage as low as $1 an hour and work 12 to 16 hour workdays with no overtime pay. As a result of excessively long hours, countless women are developing work-related injuries and illnesses. There is no alternative for the many women who develop these occupational diseases, except to continue working until they are completely disabled.

We cannot afford to give these manufacturers and retailers even more paperwork, such as a code of conduct, to hide behind or allow them to continue to promote the empty promise of the union label. When workers come together to challenge the rising tide of sweatshop conditions, then we are striving for a change that affects our lives and is felt throughout our communities, not something that exists only on paper.

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