In the late ’90s, the horrors of sweatshops became a focal point of concern in the global North. However, in the past two decades, they’ve faded from public attention. We spoke to No Sweat, a campaign to abolish sweatshops, about labour organising, campaigning, consumer culture and approaches to tackling the global North-South wealth divide. 

Din Deng: Can you tell us about yourself and No Sweat?

Jay: I’m Jay, a campaigner for No Sweat which is a worker’s solidarity campaign focused on the garment industry. It started in 2000 and at the time sweatshops were a hot topic, with a lot of brands having been exposed for using sweatshops in the global south. Mostly it was solidarity work, making connections with garment factory trade unions in different countries, to try and amplify the voice of the workers, rather than act like a charity or tell those unions what to do, it was a case of finding out what those workers wanted from us, to fight for workers’ rights and in particular trade union rights beyond all else. A lot of our work back then in the UK was standing outside shops shouting with megaphones about abuses in places like Indonesia and Mexico. After a hiatus in 2015 we reconvened after I had been working in Thailand and Burma. After a visit to Yangon, we connected with a lot of punk organisers like Rebel Riot and started to do solidarity work with them, creating Punks Against Sweatshops. Then after the Coup in February we were connected with the All Burma Federation of Trade Unions and we threw ourselves into solidarity work there through No Sweat and the Global Women’s Strike, starting the Myanmar Military Never in Fashion campaign. Ultimately our answer to the problem of sweatshops is the growth of trade unions and that’s kind of where we differ from a lot of the other groups that have come about in the past few decades, who you could say have a more charity like western paternalistic approach. 

Din Deng: What are the economic origins of sweatshops in the global supply chain?

Jay: From my understanding, and I’m not an expert, but it was around the ‘70s when global brands discovered that you can hire much cheaper labour, without regulatory restrictions, overseas and thanks to the cheaper cost of shipping they were able to see a massive increase in profit. So by the 1980s, this was really taking off, in large part because of the Thatcher/Reagan economic models you see this huge shift to the global south in terms of production and eventually by the mid to late 1990’s it had come to the attention of the wider public, exposing the disparity between the wealth of the brands and the wages at the bottom of the supply chain, actually one of our first leaflets was “The Nike CEO gets paid more than 60,000 of their Indonesian workers get paid collectively”. 

Din Deng: Yeah, I remember the John Pilger documentary that exposed how western industries worked with The US State Department, CIA, etc to bring Suharto (the dictator of Indonesia) into power in 1968 and open up the economy and thereby a lot of sweatshops. 

Jay: Interestingly, there’s this story about Bangladesh when in the ’70s an “entrepreneur” sent a whole bunch of Bangladeshi workers to South Korea to learn garment work and then they effectively brought it back to Bangladesh. There was a similar story from this factory in Mexico as well, which was financed by South Korean money, so a lot of this stuff comes out of Korea in terms of the entrepreneurs who are always looking for cheaper labour. 

Din Deng: It seems that there are a lot of commonalities in places where you see sweatshops appearing. For example, in Bangladesh, Burma and Cambodia, countries with large populations relative to not much urban industrial development and little labour protections. There’s also this pattern with regime changes as well, as we said there was a huge influx of sweatshops in Indonesia when Suharto took power. Also, in Cambodia when the UN and international financial institutions came in and “restructured” the economy once the Vietnamese left and in Burma after the country “liberalised” and opened its market to foreign investors. In a lot of these cases, the economy is being intentionally structurally underwritten to facilitate these conditions for this kind of hyper-exploitation. I don’t know a great deal about Bangladesh, but it’s interesting that they got their independence in the early 1970s, and that’s the same time that you said sweatshops first started appearing there.

Jay: My impression is that special economic zones also come into play in a big way, like in Mexico, which has a huge garment industry. That’s largely down to trade agreements, western companies can build a factory and essentially get tax free production. That’s important when you have these global south governments being coerced into opening up their countries to western investors who pay poverty wages and operate with little to no regulation. It’s also a lot more widespread than people realise, like we recently had a case of a sweatshop in Lesotho in Southern Africa, where they had a big garment worker strike around gender-based violence, and even we didn’t know there were factories there. 

Din Deng: In the case of Burma there’s also this internal migration, like after Cyclone Nargis in 2008 when a lot of rural people moved to work in the factories in Yangon. Also previously, when we were working with garment workers in these factories, there were a lot of cases of people moving to cities because of the destruction of the environment in dry zone areas (areas where there are often droughts), due to environmental degradation, deforestation and land grabs etc, so they can’t work in their own farmland, forcing them to Yangon to work in factories. These environmental issues also coincided with the NLD taking power and another problem we saw under the supposed democratic transition is the notion that outside investment is good for the economy, which, when combined with social development funds, for example, USAID, State Department funding, etc, has resulted in the NGO’ification of trade unions which is a huge problem, because it deradicalises the movement and creates this domestic labour aristocracy.

Jay: Yeah, it’s hard to know who to trust and who to work with, different trade union movements in different countries also have their domestic disputes. It can be hard to figure out who’s actually organising workers who’re just creating these fake unions to increase their sales. Sometimes it feels like we’re walking blindly into a political minefield.

Din Deng: Garment industry campaigns seem to come and go out of the public’s attention, it seems like they haven’t been in focus lately, why do you think that is?

Jay: I think partly it’s the element of “there are other things going on around the world”. Like currently the coup and civil war in Burma being overshadowed by Ukraine. Over the years there have been waves of attention coming and going, particularly when there are these big exposés, we get floods of attention which die away when the news cycle moves on. But the other big issue in the broader campaign of sweatshop workers’ rights is the ability for capitalists to switch the narrative and create artificial remedies, like buzz words of “sustainable” and “ethical”. When we first started none of the brands spoke this kind of language, which was initially used by activists, then the brands co-opted these terms like “ethical fashion” it’s just like “ethics washing” which does nothing for trade union rights. So, in the early 2000’s, there was no alternative (for the consumer), but then by around 2015 “ethical fashion” was suddenly everywhere, from big to small companies when you look at their websites, you see them using these buzzwords, but none of them ever mention trade unions or workers’ rights, just a smiling man in the field holding some cotton. So, I think this has created the misconception in wider society that the problem on a systematic level doesn’t exist anymore. I remember this leftwing American podcast was talking about our campaign and they introduced it as “Remember sweatshops? Turns out that’s still a thing, feels like it’s the 90’s again”. Seems like the world just moved on but the issues remain. 

Din Deng: One of the challenges in this kind of campaign seems to be that sweatshops will move out of one country or economy and just reappear somewhere else. Do you foresee any way of ending this?

Jay: It’s interesting because in Mexico for example, most of the sweatshops are on the border with the US, the same when I was working in Thailand, along the border with Burma in the special economic zones. So these kinds of disparities between countries are going to continue and appear in borderlands where it can be best exploited. But that comes back to our approach which is an internationalist trade union one. Though, at the end of the day, it feels like we’re constantly chasing the situation around the globe as capitalism moves production to the most profitable locations. 

Din Deng: While your organisation is explicitly anti-capitalist… Doesn’t much of this kind of campaigning work boil down to pressuring the consumer to make ethical choices, rather than a more substantive change?

Jay: Our intention is to put across the point that it doesn’t matter where you shop and boycotts are almost never a solution, it’s very hard not to fall into “shop here not there”. That’s been an issue since we started this ethical T-shirt project. Our focus was to invest in co-ops that had been set up by ex-sweatshop workers, sell the t-shirts and use the profits to fund the labour union part of the campaign, but then you immediately fall into “shop here not there” so it’s hard to strike a balance. Ultimately, where we differ from other campaigns is the promotion of workers’ co-ops and trade unions as the starting point towards a solution. 

Din Deng: Not to directly criticise No Sweat, but more broadly, isn’t almost all ethical campaign advocacy coming from the global north running on the assumption that there is an ethical way to have a global North-South divide in wealth, with the producers in the south and consumers in the north?

Jay: Yeah, personally I agree with that classic point that there’s no ethical consumption under capitalism. Essentially what we’re talking about here is world revolution compared to reformism. Politically speaking I align more with world revolution, however, on a practical level I feel I can do more with this trade union work which often falls under the reformist category. Honestly, the people I hang out with here (in the UK), they spend all their time arguing amongst themselves about this but do nothing productive. They’re good people, but it doesn’t go very far. Through No Sweat when we’re connecting with these trade unions, where people are actively fighting for workers’ rights, changing lives on the ground, in a power building way, rather than some kind of paternalist west imperialist way, really building solidarity, that feels much more effective than just hanging out at home talking about the coming revolution. Again, it’s a balance. 

Din Deng: Would you argue that through union organising in these places you’re pushing workers towards a more radical politics?

Jay: That’s something we have to consider, because through our work, should we really be the ones encouraging them to be more radical, when there are a lot of other localised issues and forces? For example, I connect with these groups in Bangladesh and maybe they’re showing some radical signs, but should I push them further? That can lead back to the western imperialism on my part, with a guy like me telling them to be more radical and take more risks, they could rightly tell me to fuck off. But, having said that, I do appreciate your point that we can fall into the trap of reformism and consumerist politics. 

Din Deng: We had a similar experience working with factory workers in Yangon, for example, when a union had some conflict with management and they wanted to seek legal assistance through government ministries, we refused to cooperate with those ministries, but the union insisted on it. So who are we to go against what they want to do? There’s always this dilemma. Like, who were we to tell them “Read this, understand that” when what they need after working a long day is to go home and rest and have a good meal in front of them. 

Din Deng: Moving on, the garment industry has often been highlighted for labour abuses, and there are two other big industries like this, like chocolate and coffee. Why are those 3 highlighted when there are significant abuses in other industries, like factories that work with plastics or metal works, etc? Is the mistreatment actually worse in those 3 industries?

Jay: Arguably in some cases, it’s better in those 3 industries. I remember a Bangladeshi trade union organiser talking about the focus on garment factories but if you go into a metalworking site down the road, you’ll see small children working with heavy machinery, which is miles apart from the “nice” garment factory, even though in the garment factory the workers are obviously being exploited as well, but not to the same degree. He said if you saw that metal works, you’d be running towards the garment factory. So, it’s hard to say. Historically with No Sweat, we’ve tried to branch out beyond garments, but that’s what our focus was at the start. Ultimately the definition of a sweatshop is a place where workers are super-exploited, excessively long hours, excessively low pay and extremely dangerous conditions, that’s the difference between a sweatshop and a general workplace, where you’re also being exploited because you’re at work. That issue of super-exploitation is faced in all productive industries across the world.  

This came home to me when I worked with migrant workers in Chiang Mai. I assumed their focus would be on sweatshops, but they were actually working mostly with construction workers in Chiang Mai, who were facing this kind of super-exploitation. That kind of made me really realise that you don’t need to be in a factory to face this. I think the issue then becomes how to approach that. If you’re trying to build a campaign you have to pick an issue that people can connect with, which is why we work mostly within the garment industry, because if we start talking about construction sites in Chiang Mai it’s harder for people to connect with. In some ways the garment industry is an easy target. 

I think as well, with products like clothes, chocolate and coffee there’s a historical significance in the west, as it relates to colonisation and imperialism. Also, those industries are very tied to Fair Trade, which is a project we’ve been very critical of, as they basically don’t promote trade unions. The thing about trade unions is that they have the ability to expand over many industries, so our intention with the union focused campaign is to try to facilitate that expansion.

Din Deng: And then that in itself can be a force for addressing the global wealth divide?

Jay: Exactly