Workers of the World Must Shut Down the Sweatshops!

Any day is a good day for anti-capitalist protest, but international workers’ day – May Day – is one of the best. As protesters turn their attention to prominent symbols of global capital, the horrors of the sweatshop come under particular focus.

The ‘No Sweat’ campaign is targeting the sweatshops of the third world, in which large manufacturing companies from the rich imperialist countries make obscene profits at the expense of grossly overworked and underpaid workers. For instance, on 8 March, international working women’s day, protestors gathered outside Gap stores in London calling for solidarity with women workers around the world and highlighting the appalling pay and conditions suffered by the mainly young women who make Gap clothes in the third world.

For international working class solidarity!

An effective solidarity campaign must focus on mobilising workers in the imperialist countries. Other methods, such as the consumer boycotts favoured by the campus-based anti-sweatshop campaign in North America, are useful only as secondary tactics. Consumer boycotts aim at mobilising the shopping practices of middle-class liberalism and can shade into sanctimonious protectionism. Taken by themselves they do little to improve the lives of sweatshop workers – in fact, have the potential to leave those workers with no income at all.

The conditions of third world workers can be significantly improved only by their own class-based action against their bosses, backed by workers in the imperialist centres. Such a movement can also fight successfully for broad social programmes of education and housing, which can provide real alternatives to ‘careers’ as beggars or prostitutes when a sweatshop is closed down.

The campaign in Britain sees itself as in solidarity with the North American campaign and at times advocates the consumer boycott approach, but to its credit has sought to support the recent big Nike factory strike in Mexico and has obtained the support of the National Union of Knitwear, Footwear and Apparel Trades. We must build on this perspective.

Trade unions and other workers’ organisations need to build solidarity with sweatshop workers struggling to improve their pay and conditions – such as the workers who won recognition for an independent union after a lengthy strike at the Han Young factory in Tijuana, Mexico, which manufactures truck chassis under contract for Hyundai; the South Korean workers at Daewoo Motors who have waged a heroic fight against bosses and police; and the millions of workers involved in a wave of strikes across India to resist new oppressive anti-worker legislation.

It is clear that genuine internationalist solidarity can make its voice heard, despite the national chauvinism and protectionism that dominates the leadership of the workers’ movement and often infects our class. The internationally co-ordinated solidarity actions at ports around the world in support of the Liverpool dockers in the mid-1990s shows that we can break down the divisions caused by nationalist poison and start to build an international workers’ movement capable of challenging the imperialist system. In the best case the workers’ movement can implement our own kind of ‘boycott’. The 11-day political strike by San Francisco dockworkers who refused to unload South African cargo from the Nedlloyd Kimberley in 1984 is an example of how the power of the labour movement can be used in effective solidarity action.

Fight all oppression, at home and abroad!

Sweatshop super-exploitation is not a disease spread only by American companies, as some in the campaign tend to see it. Britain is the second biggest centre for finance capital in the world after the USA, and British companies are also involved in profiteering from the misery and horror of sweatshop production. We have a particular responsibility to go after our own bourgeoisie. Yet the British campaign almost exclusively targets Nike and Gap – two very public symbols of American capitalism.

While the barbaric conditions of third world sweatshops are formally illegal in Britain, the conditions of the ‘black economy’ work forced on many illegal immigrants are not much better. And recent revelations regarding the 400,000 low paid and largely non-unionised call-centre workers who ‘endure oppressive conditions imposed by supervisors who deny them breaks and monitor their toilet visits’ (Guardian, 5 April 2001) show that appalling work conditions are not just for ‘foreigners’. While liberals limit the struggle to the removal of the particular capitalist horror of sweatshops, the goal of revolutionaries should be to mobilise the working class to oppose the whole system of exploitation and oppression.

Defend China and Vietnam against capitalist restoration!

The current campaign lumps together sweatshops in capitalist countries with those in deformed workers’ states such as China and Vietnam. But this obscures the different tasks faced by workers in those countries. The fight to improve the conditions of sweatshop workers in China and Vietnam must begin with firm defence of these countries against the forces of capitalist restoration.

Sweatshops in Vietnam and China are increasingly prevalent as the pressures of capitalism get stronger, mainly in capitalist-run enterprises in the Special Economic Zones. These are likely to multiply many times over as China is forced to comply with World Trade Organization requirements. A return to capitalism in China, no matter how ‘democratic’ its pretensions, would throw tens of millions of workers out of a job and turn every surviving factory into a sweatshop. We struggle to improve the situation of Chinese workers through a proletarian political revolution which would topple the rule of the bureaucrats who allow the sweatshops to exist, and establish the direct democratic rule of workers’ councils.

The British anti-sweatshop movement is led by Revolution and Bolshie (the youth groups of Workers Power and the Alliance for Workers Liberty respectively), and the Socialist Workers Party is involved as Globalise Resistance. A decade ago, as the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe fell to capitalist restoration, these organisations all sided with the pro-capitalists as supposedly a lesser evil than continuation of the deformed workers’ states. The

effect of 10 years of capitalism on working people in these countries has done nothing to change their assessment. All refuse to defend China against capitalist restoration, claiming that it is already capitalist.

An anti-sweatshop campaign that does not clearly take a stand against any support for the forces of capitalist restoration that threaten the remaining deformed workers’ states (China, Vietnam, North Korea and Cuba) risks echoing the hypocritical use of ‘human rights’ by US presidents Clinton and Bush as a pretence for anti-communist China-bashing. Cases such as that of former Black Panther Mumia Abu-Jamal, sitting on death row in Pennsylvania as a result of a politically-motivated frame-up, say plenty about human rights in western countries.

Expropriate the exploiters! For workers’ rule

All those involved in the anti-sweatshop movement wish to end suffering and exploitation. But this impulse needs to be connected to an understanding of the real dynamics of world capitalism, and the necessity to completely replace it. Obscene inequality is a fundamental and unalterable feature of capitalism. Hundreds of millions of working people around the globe have first-hand experience that reforms introduced by imperialist agencies like the IMF/WTO are only designed to create opportunities for profitable investment for foreign capitalists and their domestic partners.

Unlike those who seek to humanise capitalism, revolutionaries seek to expropriate the exploiters and replace the anarchy of the market with a rationally planned, collectivised economy where production is determined by human need rather than private profit.

As part of this class-struggle perspective British workers need to break with the pro-business Labour Party and create our own party independent of the interests of the bosses. Such a party must begin with the understanding that the interests of capital and labour are diametrically opposed, and must be committed to representing the interests of all the oppressed. A genuine class-struggle party must have an internationalist perspective that cuts across the boundaries of capitalist nation-states. Only when the working class takes power into its own hands will humanity be free from the horror and misery that capitalism brings to the vast majority of the world’s population. For workers’ power and international socialist revolution!

1 May 2001