No Sweat

February 1999

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The following is submitted by Ten Days for Global Justice and describes their "Wear Fair" program-an education, action, and research campaign to stop sweatshop abuses.

A quick look at the label on the back of your shirt will tell you that it doesn't reveal much. There's a lot of hidden labour behind the label-most of it sweated out in low wages and very bad working conditions here in Canada and in every corner of the world. The struggle confronting the people who sew our clothes and make our shoes is part of a global economic picture that `sweats' peoples and countries for the lowest wage, the longest working hours, the highest exports in the name of great profits for a few.

It is this sort of situation that the Canadian Ecumenical Jubilee Initiative is trying to address, both in this, its "Year One: Release from Bondage" program, and in the years to come.

As part of this year's Jubilee work, Ten Days for Global Justice and the Ecumenical Coalition for Economic Justice, two national ecumenical coalitions, are engaging in "Wear Fair"-an education, action, and research campaign against sweatshops.

Many people want to know what exactly is wrong with the industry that clothes us. Why call it "slavery"? At least new jobs are being created, right?

In the past decade, Free Trade has allowed the garment industry to go global, and the unions who once offered some protection against extreme exploitation are being undermined or threatened while jobs move to the country which offers the lowest wages. In this race to the bottom, workers in both the North and the South are losing out, while large clothing retailers and designer labels post growing profits. Hardest hit are young women, who have a long tradition of exploitation within the garment industry. Their wages often fall far below the level needed for basic necessities, both in Canada and in the South. Forced overtime, harassment, and bad working conditions are common throughout the industry.

"But," comes the next question, "what can I do about it? Do you want me to boycott everyone? Are there any companies who don't exploit the workers?"

`Clean' Clothes
Right now no one is calling for a boycott, though it is almost impossible to find clothes that are guaranteed `clean.' For the past few years, many Church, union, and citizens' groups in Canada have been calling on clothing retailers and big brand names to accept responsibility for the bad conditions under which their products are made, both in Canada and overseas.

More recently, they've also begun to call on the government to take responsibility for enforcing its own laws and ending sweatshop abuses in Canada and in countries that supply clothing for import into Canada. Really `clean' clothes and running shoes, identified through an independently monitored fair trade labeling system, will be a few years down the road, but the change has to start somewhere.

Churches have a particular responsibility to carry on the work begun by the Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace in their 1995-96 campaign aimed at Nike and Levi Strauss. Since this campaign formally ended, a variety of groups have been strategizing about how best to continue to call the global garment industry to account. These groups are now asking church members, students, and the public in general to support a longer-term solution to sweatshops by joining in a call for a government-sponsored taskforce on sweatshop abuses.

The taskforce would bring together representatives of governments, manufacturers, retailers, unions, non-governmental organizations, and religious groups. The group would work on industry-wide solutions such as access to information about clothing manufacture, Codes of Conduct, and monitoring of those codes by groups independent of the companies in question.

While this may not sound particularly challenging, the government has remained silent about the proposal for many months, despite a public commitment from Foreign Affairs Minister Lloyd Axworthy to strike such a taskforce. And both governments and retailers remain reluctant to admit to the scale of sweatshop abuses that are occurring, both in Canada and in the global South.

At this stage, pressure from people at the community level is key. The simple act of buying a pair of running shoes throws each of us into the role of both consumer and citizen in a democratic country that has labour laws that sound good, but are not being enforced.

It is ironic that the very globalization which leads our governments to proclaim its powerlessness gives us new responsibilities for speaking out and asking questions that take us beyond the advertising glitz of the fashion industry. By looking behind the designer label and asking difficult questions, we push both governments and retailers to recognize that they have both the responsibility and the power to improve conditions in the multi-billion dollar garment industry.

Postcard Campaign
As a way of offering easier access to this complex issue, a postcard campaign is already well underway, and groups across the country are staging the Sweatshop Fashion Show and visiting retailers with questions in hand.

Sweatshop labour is a worldwide problem, but it has a global solution. All over the world, people are getting together to support workers and demand an end to starvation wages, forced child labour, and terrible working conditions that have a special impact on millions of women. Churches and unions, students and seniors, in the South and the North are daring to say that there is a better way, and that our shoes and clothing do not have to be made with sweat. It is possible to have a decent job with decent wages, with dignity.

For resources and information on the Wear Fair campaign, contact Ten Days for Global Justice, 947 Queen St. East, Suite 201, Toronto, ON, M4M 1J9; Tel: (416) 463-5312; Fax: (416) 463-5569; Email:

Ten Days for Global Justice is an education and action program of the Anglican, Evangelical Lutheran, Presbyterian and United Churches, and of the Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace. TEN DAYS encourages community-based support for social change around the world.

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