Richard Leitch reviews ‘Clean Clothes: a Global Movement to end Sweatshop‘ by Liesbeth Sluiter, Pluto Press 2009.

The garment industry is well known for its globally organised production system. This book traces the development of an equally global opposition network, the Clean Clothes Campaign (CCC). It’s a campaign that has pushed the industry to clean up its labour practices in the last two decades: a coalition of NGOs, trade unions and consumer groups, which has grown from European beginnings to include about 250 member organisations.

In an era when national regulation and national trade union powers are in decline, CCC has tracked the global expansion of the garment industry and developed a range of strategies to improve labour practices in its expansive supply chains, where the logics of cost-cutting, ‘murderous competition’ and perpetually cheap clothing hold sway. Liesbeth Sluiter’s book offers a valuable history of the CCC, set against the changing context of garment production. It also provides a detailed consideration of its campaigning tactics (BTW thanks to Ashling Seely of the ITGLWF for help in putting this review together).

Clearly the CCC is not a typical actor of the labour movement, as normally understood. Nor does it represent workers in the workplace. It has a ‘supporting role’ only. As Sluiter recognises, only workers’ self-organisation can effectively clean up garment production and deliver fair and decent working conditions. Nevertheless, given the massive challenges facing workers who seek to create their own unions in a hostile, cut-throat and geographically dispersed industry, this story is well worth a closer look. Sluiter assesses CCC’s strengths and weaknesses, and the support it can offer to the global garment proletariat.

In terms of origin and context, the CCC began as an anti-sweatshop campaign directed against the Dutch garment industry and its leading retailer C&A. Exposing the role of C&A in the elaboration of sweatshop production networks in East Asia initiated a train of events: the formation of the CCC in Holland; links established with like-minded European groups, that soon led to a Europe-wide network; fact-finding missions to the Asian productioin zones, uncovering further supply chains and identifying workers and labour rights organisations as future partners. For C&A and its Dutch counterparts were not alone in the turn to global outsourcing, as Sluiter demonstrates.

From its inception in the nineteenth century, the garment industry has led a footloose life. Wherever workers succeeded in organising themselves and in raising wages, and working conditions, the industry packed up and moved on in search of cheaper production sites’ (p3).

This process has accelerated in recent decades, with TNCs increasingly outsourcing their manufacturing to low wage countries – where little union organisation exists and the risks of labour management are passed to its supplying companies – especially in Asia. Within this trend, a marked shift to informal employment has occurred – via the use of extensive subcontracting, agents and homeworking – delivering maximum flexibility for the TNCs but maximum insecurity for garment workers.

Those seeking to organise in this industry must confront massive problems associated with geographically dispersed workforces, many of whom lack contractual rights and are scrambling for their very survival.

By way of illustration Sluiter provides a number of case studies of this global outsourcing, in Asia particularly. These typically reveal extreme forms of worker exploitation, including all of the following: drastically low pay, long hours, forced overtime, irregular work, no contractual rights, sexual harassment of a predominantly female workforce, violence and intimidation, extensive health and safety violations (including factory collapse), suppression of trade unions and efforts at workers self-organisation.

In response to all this, the CCC has conducted research missions and built links with Asian labour rights organisations and trade unions, establishing a base for challenging these desperate circumstances. Many individual campaigns have resulted – the struggle to win compensation for workers at the collapsed Spectrum factory in Bangladesh; repeated efforts to establish union organisation in Sri Lankan plants; protection for worker organisations in Thailand threatened by employer strategies of subcontracting as a means to break their power. Other international bodies in the labour movement itself have been involved here too – especially the sector’s international union federation, ITGLWF, which has a long standing involvement in solidarity actions across the garment industry.

So much for the environment that CCC organisations operate within. The bulk of Sluiter’s book concerns the strategies, tactics and internal debates of the CCC itself. As a coalition, CCC operates in a decentralised way, allowing member organisations to pursue their own projects within the overall goal of improving labour standards in the garment sector. Thus Dutch campaigners pioneered ‘clean clothes communities’, looking for public procurement bodies (eg local authorities) to take a lead in sourcing workwear from suppliers paying adequate wages; whilst in the UK, ‘Labour behind the Label’ developed a focus upon the fashion industry itself and its future designers in higher education.

CCC has an international secretariat to encourage coordination and prevent conflicts arising between groups, but no formal organisation exercising central control has ever existed. Sluiter acknowledges the enabling role of the Internet for this way of operating, which certainly isn’t the normal way unions function!

Having said that, there is obviously a common purpose behind CCC actions, certain favoured tactics; and an identifiable four pronged strategic focus upon actors and institutions able to effect positive change. The book devotes a chapter to each of these.

First and most important are the garment workers themselves. CCC has adopted a dual approach here, mobilising support for their struggles by means of high profile publicity campaigns launched against major Western brands, and working with Southern affiliates to support organising. The public opinion strand relies on ‘urgent appeals’, encouraging consumer action against Western brands to force them to make improvements in their supply chains. Initially targetted at particular companies, CCC now tries to adopt a more general, geographic or sectoral focus in its appeals, aware that the scale of change needed across the industry goes beyond one individual firm. The Play Fair campaigns directed at Olympic Games tournaments are one illustration of this.

In terms of supporting workers’ organisation, CCC members work alongside trade unions, at both national and international levels, to bolster freedom of association – with some notable successes in certain Asian countries. Educational programmes for garment workers are also effective, where no independent unions exist. Sometimes they serve as a substitute (eg in China), at other times CCC’s ‘action research’ in garment export production zones has stimulated union development.

Nevertheless, as Sluiter recognises, the barriers to workers self-organisation are substantial – alongside massive informal employment, there is an extensive use of migrant labour (generally a vulnerable young female workforce), widespread repression of labour activism and physical exclusion of unions from enclosed factories. Tackling all this requires patient, collaborative work by CCC groups and union bodies; and lurking in the background is the all too familiar reality of employers closing factories where unions have been able to gain a foothold.

Western consumers are a second CCC target. It has repeatedly called for action by this group to bring pressure to bear on multinational brands and retailers, and has struck a chord here. However, these ethically charged consumers also want an alternative to sweatshop goods – and this demand has proved far harder to accommodate within the anti-sweatshop movement and CCC. Sluiter goes on to describe the debates within CCC around the legitimacy of Fairtrade and ‘sweatfree’ alternatives. Fairtrade is seen as in many ways an inapplicable model for garment production, given the scarcity of its favoured model of producer organisation (worker coops) in the industry’s supply chains.

The claims of sweatfree goods producers are problematic: their long and volatile supply chains throw up massive challenges for monitoring and verification, defying any easy oversight. What Sluiter describes as ‘militant consumerism’ has therefore proved something of a double edged sword for the CCC.

Legal and regulatory authority is another option. Here CCC has won the moral argument on fundamental labour rights as human rights, to be universally upheld and codified in binding law and regulation. The actual implementation of this is a different matter. Resistance by employers, governments and supranational regulatory bodies has repeatedly stymied CCC efforts to win significant advances, either through individual litigation or legislative avenues.

And finally the employers themselves. The network has from the outset targetted major brands and retailers, calling on them to take responsibiltity for labour practices throughout their supply chains. The lengthy struggle to fashion a watertight ‘code of conduct’ for the whole industry by CCC shows the difficulties involved here. Designed to prevent employers using ‘uneven playing field’ excuses to block necessary changes, the CCC’s own code (based on core ILO conventions on labour rights) has encountered serious obstacles in relation to its implementation. It has had to compete with a number of other industry codes with varying degrees of coverage – fashioned by employers themselves (in the name of ‘corporate social responsibility’), NGOs and so-called ‘multi-stakeholder initiatives’. This leaves the sector as a whole operating according to different standards. The corporate audit industry has proved itself incapable of undertaking genuine investigation of labour standards – leading the CCC to call for an alternative monitoring machinery based on the involvement of the garment workers themselves.

Beyond these issues, industry purchasing practices are recognised as creating severe problems for garment production. The incessant drive for cheap clothing, coupled with changing fashions, is translated into low wages, cost-cutting and fluctuating employment patterns at the end of the supply chain. CCC has tried to put pressure on the whole sector to address its scandalously low wages through ‘PlayFair’ sports events campaigns. However, so far it has had little sucess.

Sluiter argues two other additonal barriers are operating here. Firstly, there are now major Asian production TNCs operating within the industry as one-stop supply chain managers. They cover design, production and distribution of goods. Unlike the Western brands, these corporations shun high profile brand advertising, making them a far more elusive target for anti-sweatship campaigns. Secondly the rise of global retailing, led by Wal Mart, introduces a new set of opponents. Notoriously bad employers and relentless cost-cutters, these retailers bear down hard on their suppliers and workforces, enforcing minimal pay and conditions – and actively block trade unions. So far the CCC has tried to respond by launching general campaigns against supermarket power, in tandem with other progressive organisations, such as ‘Better Bargain’.

CCC does not have an easy road to travel. Sluiter’s book ends with a look at future CCC priorities, which revolve around the need for systemic change within the industry. Campaigns against specific employers have not led to general advances, and can always fall on the hurdle of company retaliation, closing factories and removing at an instant any gains made by the workforce. This sector-wide perspective has realigned the long-standing ‘urgent appeals’ tactic towards more general or thematic concerns.

There are new regional strategies aiming to unite the labour movement of a geographical zone behind a ‘wage floor’ , taking wages out of competition. The Asia Floor Wage campaign, allying 34 NGOs and unions in 14 Asian countries, is leading the way here. At the level of the whole sector, the PlayFair campaigns have tried to bring major employers on board (through such means as ‘sectoral framework agreements’) to tackle low pay and secure freedom of association. Once again though, many firms are resistant to change. This only goes to show the length of the road still to travel for CCC and its allies.

At the time of writing a new PlayFair Olympics 2012 campaign is underway. You can join in via their website: http://www.playfair2012.org. The abiding lesson of the CCC story is that global production systems require cross-border labour action to tame their destructive profit-ridden dynamics in the name of workers’ rights.

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