Op-ed: Struggle against sweatshop labor abuses must continue

In an Op-ed piece, Amy Kessel urges students to stand against sweatshop labor abuses.

After two years of campaigning, the workers from the PT Kizone factory in Indonesia have finally been paid their rightfully owed severance by Adidas in a precedent-setting agreement between the brand and the workers’ union.

The PT Kizone factory, which made apparel for brands like Nike, Adidas and the Dallas Cowboys, closed its doors on April 1, 2011 without paying workers their legally mandated severance. Factory workers in garment-exporting countries like Indonesia rely on their severance pay for survival after factories unexpectedly close, which occurs all too often due to uncompromising pressure from Western brands. In the case of the PT Kizone factory closure, other brands manufacturing clothes in the factory paid a portion of the severance, but Adidas refused to pay a single cent of the remaining $1.8 million. That is, until an international “Badidas” campaign that united workers, students and activists compelled the company pay.

Seventeen universities – including Temple – ended licensing agreements with Adidas when national student-run labor organization United Students Against Sweatshops demanded that they uphold their licensing codes of conducts and refuse to do business with brands that violate human rights. This was the largest collegiate boycott of a top-three sportswear company in history, setting a precedent for Western brands in which they can no longer walk away when their contractors deprive workers of legally earned money. It was also a significant step in cleaning up Adidas’s immensely flawed supply chain.

In February, Temple’s Coalition of Students Against Sweatshops, a USAS affiliate, hosted two workers from the PT Kizone factory in Indonesia to speak about their struggle against Adidas. The worker tour event sparked student agitation and built upon the Adidas campaign and the student labor movement on our campus. Union leader Aslam Hidayat said, “We don’t see fault in you if you wear these clothes, even though they have the sweat of our labors in them, the problem is the system.”  Students joined with workers in a chant – “Hidup buruh!” – Long live the workers!

Even with this amazing victory, however, it is clear that Western brands are still far from commendable in their treatment of their subcontracted workers. We reflect upon this chant – “long live the workers!” now more than ever, as the death toll from last week’s tragic factory collapse in Bangladesh exceeds 500. Since 2005, over 1,100 workers have died in Bangladeshi factory disasters, a sickening statistic that should serve to spark real transformation. Corporate Social Responsibility programs are clearly incapable of providing a truly safe work environment – brands must listen to the collective voice of the workers and sign onto binding safety programs based on independent inspections, worker-led health and safety committees and union access to factories.

The clothes we buy in retail stores, even from our prestigious college bookstores, are too often intertwined with horrific labor violations. Students, workers and labor groups are slowly changing the industry, because when we unite and demand better standards, we win, as historic USAS campaigns against Adidas, Nike and Russell have shown. Our message will continue to ring loud and clear: No one should die or suffer for fashion.

Amy Kessel can be reached at amy.kessel@temple.edu.

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