ViewPoint: Communities Going Sweat-Free

lianafoxvogCurrently, communities are unwittingly supporting sweatshop labor when state and local governments use tax dollars to buy things such as firefighter uniforms.  Liana Foxvog, National Organizer of the advocacy organization SweatFree Communities, discusses findings of Subsidizing Sweatshops II, the latest research on sweatshops perpetuated by government contracts.

Guillermo Cosajay works in a garment factory making apparel for the government. When his vision started going blurry, he didn’t know why. Then he looked at his glasses and saw they were covered with oil. But the glasses weren’t keeping the oil out of his eyes. Cosajay told researchers from SweatFree Communities, “The thread uses lots of oil. So when you are working, there is a part of the machine that shoots oil into your eyes.” Guillermo brought this issue to several supervisors, but to no avail.
A new report by Sweat Free Communities, Subsidizing Sweatshops II, shines a light on workers’ rights violations in seven factories like the one Cosajay works in. It also looks at how our tax dollars can foster workers’ rights –and economic recovery– rather than fuel the race to the bottom.

A previous exposé last summer profiled four of the same factories. Since the first report, the stock market crashed. That’s brought increased attention to jobs and insecurity. But, long before news of the crisis hit the airwaves, most of the world’s population had been experiencing a quieter, less-publicized economic crisis.

The workers we interviewed face a daily crisis. Families can’t make ends meet on their wages. They go to work sick because they can’t afford to lose a day’s pay.  People are fired and blacklisted when they try to organize. Workers are laid off–often without warning or adequate severance pay–when factories move for cheaper labor. The collapse on Wall Street only made things go from already bad to worse.

Companies tell workers that they should be happy to have a job– and never mind about the poor conditions. Guillermo Portalatin, a worker at Eagle Industries, who makes Army and law enforcement apparel, said: “The workers have a lot of fear because of the economic situation. The company takes advantage of that. They told us recently not to listen to radios, and when somebody asked for a raise, the supervisor said we were lucky to be working.”

Portalatin and Cosajay don’t work in a third world sweatshop. They work in Massachusetts. Ongoing SweatFree Communities’ research shows that a family of four with two adults working at the factory make only 60-65% of a living wage. The company’s family health insurance plan costs 80% of their monthly earnings, so workers don’t buy into it. Workers say that time-keeping and surveillance create an uncomfortable work environment. They told us of incidents of favoritism, sexual harassment, ethnic discrimination, and monitoring of union supporters. In addition to shooting oil, health and safety concerns include heat exhaustion and fainting, accidents involving forklifts hitting sewing machine operators, and cuts from sharp material. Equally concerning is management’s unresponsiveness to workers’ requests for safety equipment and improvements in the working environment.

Workers at Eagle and many other factories are organizing for a seat at the negotiating table with management. Tax-payers can act in solidarity with workers by asking state and local officials to adopt sweatshop-free procurement laws and join the Sweatfree Purchasing Consortium. Those actions will help ensure that our tax dollars no longer subsidize sweatshop conditions–and instead provide incentives for companies to improve conditions and respect workers’ rights.

For the Sea Change ViewPoint, I’m Liana Foxvog of SweatFree Communities.