Look for the Kiwi Label

The "anti-sweatshop" movement has an elastic agenda.


I used to flip past news items about the "anti-sweatshop" crusade, but I began keeping a file when I realized its agenda had grown more elastic than the waistband on a Kathie Lee Gifford jogging suit:

? After getting clobbered among informed people on the trade issue, the AFL-CIO has switched tack and now says it fights imports not because they might cost American jobs but because they're made under sweatshop conditions. As Chicago Tribune columnist Steve Chapman points out, its leaders would enjoy more credibility with this new line had they not recently gone to the mat to oppose NAFTA trade with Canada, a country whose laws are more favorable to unions than those here.

? Anti-immigration groups deploy similar rhetoric to oppose letting even highly skilled professionals onto these shores. A bill to liberalize the H-1 B visa program, which facilitates entry of software engineers and other sought-after talent—Linus Torvalds, the Finnish architect of Linux, is one visa seeker under the program—"should rightly be called the Silicon Valley Sweatshop Act," argues Dan Stein, executive director of the Federation for American Immigration Reform.

? Massachusetts Sen. Edward Kennedy and Missouri Rep. William Clay, both Democrats, have introduced a "Stop Sweatshops Act" that would hold retailers liable for labor law violations committed at separate companies thousands of miles away that make clothing under contract with the stores. Where "vicarious liability" is in the wind, trial lawyers are often not far behind: Class-actioneer William Lerach has filed suit against the Gap, Wal-Mart, the Limited, and other retailers over conditions at Chinese- and Korean-owned factories in the Northern Mariana Islands that produce clothing on contract.

? Yale University is a "sweatshop," AFL-CIO Vice President Linda Chavez-Thompson has declared, because it pays grad students only a modest cash stipend on top of the free tuition and health coverage they get when they take on part-time teaching assistant duties. This was too much for The New Republic, which pointed out: "Extrapolated to a full-time, yearlong, 40-hour-a-week job, Yale graduate students would earn close to $38,000 a year—and that's not even counting the free tuition."

? The current wave of campus anti-sweatshop agitation is aimed at getting universities to dump a previously negotiated "moderate" labor-code regime regarding the manufacture of licensed goods in favor of a "strong" regime favored by activists. Both moderate and strong codes contain many provisions that go beyond anything required of employers by current labor law in the U.S., let alone in less developed countries. The "strong" code, however, further contemplates that the independent monitors empowered to roam a garment-making shop taking notes on its operations would routinely relay this information to outside union activists to assist them in their efforts to organize the shop. When apparel companies protest this latter idea as unreasonable and unfair to their contractors, campus activists accuse them of wanting to run sweatshops.

? Last year Time called the dot-com world "a piece-work industry sweat shop": Even aside from its well-known propensity for employing immigrants, New York's Silicon Alley is known for long working hours, cramped loft workspaces, easily tripped-over power cords, and non-ergonomic keyboards, along with wages that, while "decent, are hardly stratospheric." "Cyberspace is rife with sweatshops," New York University professor Andrew Ross was happy to confirm for the magazine's readers.

And why stop there? According to two labor-oriented University of Virginia academics, as quoted in this space in April, home-office telecommuters suffer job woes "remarkably similar" to those of Lower East Side tenement workers in bygone days: hence the Occupational Safety and Health Administration is right to take an interest in their plight.

? In April, Notre Dame, considered a pacesetter among universities on the code issue, announced it would heed the urgings of its Anti-Sweatshop Task Force and cease allowing the manufacture of its licensed goods in any of 13 nations whose laws are considered insufficiently protective of workers, a curious assortment of countries ranging from China and Iran to Thailand and New Zealand. New Zealand? Well, from now on Notre Dame will allow the making of licensed products only in countries that are "signatories to the relevant International Labor Organization treaties and/or have national laws guaranteeing the legal rights of free association and union organizing." Not only has New Zealand evidently failed to ratify the right ILO treaties, but certain aspects of its labor laws are slightly more libertarian than ours—hence the sanctions. The Associated Press misreported that the countries on the Notre Dame blacklist are ones that "don't permit workers to form unions." New Zealand's work force is in fact slightly more unionized than ours, at 17 percent versus 14 percent as of 1998.

We seem to have witnessed here a kind of upwardly democratized redefinition of oppression. Forget the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire of 1911. Nowadays we get to call ourselves sweatshop workers even if we have a 401(k) plan, are getting our tuition paid at an elite educational institution, or work at home amid blond Ikea office furniture rather than loom, bobbin, and shuttle. Whole countries with exceptionally low poverty rates are deemed sweatshop havens even if, like New Zealand, they're better known for vineyards and sheep-dotted hillsides than for factory production of any sort. And an employer can get tagged with the same epithet, no matter what the actual conditions in its plants, so long as it (like most employers) is eager to remain nonunion.

If it's growing ever harder to distinguish the anti-sweatshop movement's agenda from that of American unions as an institution, well, that's no coincidence. "At the core of" the movement, write supporters Richard Appelbaum and Peter Dreier in a recent issue of The American Prospect, "is a strong bond with organized labor." Indeed, "the movement is an important by-product of the labor movement's recent efforts, under President John Sweeney, to repair the rift between students and unions that dates to the Vietnam War. Summer graduates are among the key leadership of the campus anti-sweatshop movement…. Unions and several liberal foundations have provided modest funding for student anti-sweatshop groups."

Appelbaum and Dreier are frank about the campaign's goals. United Needletrades, Industrial, and Textile Employees, an AFL-CIO member union, "represents fewer than 300,000 textile and garment industry workers, down from the 800,000 represented by its two predecessor unions in the late 1960s," they observe. Conventional unionization tactics have not done well, and "organizing consumers may prove to be a precondition for organizing production workers." In particular, "independent verification of anti-sweatshop standards… can also serve the goal of union organizing."

Students can bring not only a vast fund of media-ready goodwill to this effort but also more tangible resources. For example, at the University of Wisconsin, an anti-sweatshop leader got himself elected student body president "and last year used the organization's substantial resources to promote the activists' agenda." Moreover, as a University of Michigan student points out, the issue holds moderate appeal. "Although I'm sure lots of us are all for overthrowing the corporate power structure, the human rights issues involved are what make a lot of people get involved," he said. "We have support, not just from students on the far left, but from students in the middle ground who don't consider themselves radicals."

But are the efforts of those well-meaning middle-grounders—or the revolutionaries—in fact helping workers in poorer countries? To doubt it, you needn't be a libertarian. The generally liberal MIT economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, for example, says "the lofty moral tone of the opponents of globalization is possible only because they have chosen not to think their position through….Global poverty is not something recently invented for the benefit of multinational corporations." Indeed, "the supposed friends of poor workers abroad are no friends at all. If they got their way the result for the poor Freedonian would not just be no sweatshop—it would be no job."

Appalling as they may seem to Westerners, Krugman points out, wages and working conditions in the new Third World export industries are usually a big improvement over the less visible rural poverty that came before. "In 1975 South Korean wages were only 5 percent of those in the United States; by 1995 they had risen to 43 percent," he writes. "Manufactured exports, initially based on low wages, are the only route we know for rapid economic development….Wherever the new export industries have grown, there has been measurable improvement in the lives of ordinary people."

One reason moderates keep attending the anti-sweatshop rallies is that there really are, after all, some sleazy employers who defraud workers of wages or coerce them in other ways. (Keeping immigrants' passports under lock and key to discourage them from running away is one favorite.) But the effort to distinguish between such practices and "normal" employment in low-wage contexts isn't easy given the anti-sweatshop crusade's insistence that the determination of what constitutes intolerable working conditions must never be left up to the local workers themselves, nor to the governments of the countries in which they work, democratically elected or otherwise.

In place of any serious effort to distinguish between good and bad, we now wind up with absurdities like the Notre Dame standards, which depart to an almost delirious extent from any rational tally of worker oppression. Joining New Zealand, Thailand, and the others on the college's blacklist are Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, wealthy oil countries not likely to bother with the business of exporting college-logo sports gear and sun visors. Other countries on the list, mostly very poor and obscure, include Eritrea, Laos, Somalia, the Solomon Islands, Afghanistan, Turkmenistan, and Oman. Five more, including Mozambique, Equatorial Guinea, and Qatar, have been placed on a "suspect" but not yet banned list for a distinctively hapless reason: "Their laws have not been translated into English." That would have pleased Dickens' Mrs. Jellyby, for whom the exotic remoteness of a moral concern was always a sign of its urgency.

And it gets worse when you consider the countries that didn't make the proscribed list, which as it happens include most of those whose labor or human rights policies have come under activist scrutiny in recent years, such as Indonesia, Myanmar (Burma), and Haiti. After all, it's not that hard for countries to inscribe on their law books a few dubiously enforceable laws or U.N. conventions. Even Cuba, North Korea, Zimbabwe, Libya, and the Sudan (a country in which actual, no-kidding human chattel slavery is said to persist) can continue as acceptable venues for the production of key chains and caps imprinted with the Fighting Irish mascot. What a moral inspiration to us all!

A year and a half ago I had a chance to visit New Zealand, an exceptionally pleasant, spacious, and egalitarian corner of the world known for flightless birds and America's Cup boat racing, whose most pressing social problem of late has been convincing the rest of the world that it's not actually part of Australia. I spent some of my time discussing with professors and practicing lawyers the country's somewhat distinctive labor laws, introduced by a Thatcherite administration some years back (and now under reconsideration by its more left-leaning successor government). It would be misleading to characterize these laws as either to the "left" or the "right" of ours. Kiwi employers are less constrained than American ones in some respects, more so in many others. For example, official tribunals can order New Zealand employers to reinstate fired workers, a system without exact parallel here. One of the novelties introduced in the Employment Contract of 1991, however, was a new right of individual workers to bypass union representation and reach individualized contracts with their employers if they wish. Many workers have taken advantage of this new right, weakening unions' power; by coincidence or not, the years that followed have seen the New Zealand economy enter an export-led boom impressive even by today's world standards.

So impressive has the boom been, in fact, that the island country has become a magnet for Asian immigrants hoping to make their fortune. Last year authorities raided an Auckland sewing shop whose Thai owner was found to be overworking and mistreating eight of her compatriots. She was promptly arrested and brought to trial, where she was made to pay fines and compensation totaling NZ $370,000 under the country's wage and hour laws, which—who will tell Notre Dame?—remain in force as ever. The case caused a sensation in the Kiwi press in part because it fed into ongoing anguish about the country's perceived Americanization: You think this sort of thing goes on only in Los Angeles, and now it has come here! And indeed, The American Prospect tells us that L.A. alone has more than 160,000 sweatshop workers.

Memo to my faraway friends in Wellington, Christchurch, and Rotorua: Thanks for not boycotting us.

Contributing Editor Walter Olson (wo@walterolson.com) is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and the author of The Excuse Factory: How Employment Law is Paralyzing the American Workplace (The Free Press).