Articles and Essays by Mark Engler

    The End of Gap Sweatshops?

    Victories and challenges for the anti-sweatshop movement.

    “When I decided to join Gap Inc. in the fall of 2002,” writes Paul Presser, President and CEO of the clothing giant behind the Gap, Old Navy, and Banana Republic brands, “one of the first things my teenage daughter asked was, ‘Doesn’t Gap use sweatshops?'”

    This question, effectively pushed into consumer consciousness by an aggressive global movement for workers’ rights, has haunted Gap for nearly a decade. In May, the company released its first Social Responsibility Report, providing an important window into how far that movement has come–and highlighting challenges that continue to confront apparel workers in an industry where “remaining competitive” fuels a search for ever-cheaper production.

    Gap’s 40-page report attempts to take the sweatshop issue head on. The result of a collaboration with several “social investment” and corporate responsibility organizations, such as the Calvert Group and the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility (ICCR), the document provides data on conditions in 3,010 factories in over 50 countries were the company’s garments are made. “Few factories, if any, are in full compliance all of the time” with Gap’s code of conduct, the report states.

    The report has earned Gap genuine, if measured, praise from a variety of leading anti-sweatshop organizations. “We’ve had our differences with Gap in the past, and we may in the future,” says Bruce Raynor, President of UNITE, the textiles and needletrades union. But he cites the report as a move to “create positive change for workers.”

    Nikki Bas, executive director of Sweatshop Watch, explains that “it’s pretty remarkable that they are showing not just what they are doing in terms of monitoring, but also what they are finding.” Many of these discoveries corroborate activists’ portrait of an industry that often fails to respect basic rights.

    As a frequent target of corporate campaigns in the past ten years, Gap’s name has been closely tied with the growth of the anti-sweatshop movement. “No one company created these problems,” Gap spokesperson Alan Marks fairly notes. But Gap’s energetic branding of its products as embodiments of a young, hip lifestyle have made it vulnerable to activists who question the economic realities behind the brand image.

    A 1995 National Labor Committee (NLC) campaign against union-busting at a Salvadoran Gap contractor called Mandarin International was among the first major drives to illustrate consumers’ connection to the pitfalls of corporate globalization via clothing labels. As a result, worker activists were rehired and an independent monitoring organization was created.

    Gap was one of 18 manufacturers that a major 1999 lawsuit charged with human rights abuses in the U.S. territory of Saipan. After several years of litigation, the company entered into a settlement that created a $20 million fund to compensate workers and to establish an independent monitoring system for the island.

    In 2002, UNITE and the Maquila Solidarity Network (MSN) drew attention to factories in Thailand and in the African country of Lesotho where union leaders were being targeted for denouncing working conditions. These campaigns spurred positive interventions from the company.

    So, does the new report spell the end of Gap sweatshops? “The most valuable aspect of the report is its candor,” says Bob Jeffcott of the MSN. According to the report, between 25 and 50 percent of the company’s suppliers in Central America and the Caribbean were cited for paying below-minimum wages. Monitors found the same fraction of factories in Sub-Saharan Africa and on the Indian subcontinent requiring workweeks in excess of 60 hours. Suggesting even greater problems in the industry at large, Gap reports that 90 percent of the factories it considers for sourcing fail the initial inspection by its monitors and have to be brought up to standard.

    Describing its efforts to remedy these problems, Gap points to its 90 full-time inspectors who track improvements. The report introduces a ranking system to measure levels of abuse or compliance over time.

    However, critics note that Gap currently does not provide information on specific factories in its supply chain. This level of transparency was won by student activists who established the Workers Rights Consortium, an organization that monitors apparel production for over 100 U.S. colleges and universities. Gap spokesperson Alan Marks says that the company considers names and address of suppliers to be “proprietary and competitive” information, a claim companies have long used to resist outside monitoring.

    A second problem is that only a tiny fraction of apparel factories have independent unions. Gap admits that, in contrast to child labor or safety violations, it has not been able to effectively track retaliation against workers trying to organize.

    Charlie Kernaghan of the NLC places the denial of the right to organize at the heart of the sweatshop problem. “In economies that are paying poverty wages, when people have no rights and no power, what you end up monitoring are well-run prisons,” he says. “Sure, factories will be cleaned up. They’ll have bathrooms where the water runs. But when it comes to wages, when it comes to having a democratic voice on the shop floor, monitoring and codes of conduct are a dead end.”

    While some point to unionization drives at the factory level as the proper response to this crisis, others cite a need for industry-wide pressure. Industrial strategies will be especially urgent with the elimination of the Multi-Fiber Agreement (MFA). A World Trade Organization agreement in the mid-1990s determined that the MFA, a long-standing system of quotas that protects textile production in many poor countries, will end January 1, 2005.

    Ginny Coughlin, anti-sweatshop campaign coordinator for UNITE, predicts that this will cause severe dislocation and further drive down conditions in the industry: “A million workers in Bangladesh will lose their jobs. A hundred thousand workers in Cambodia and Thailand. A million in Indonesia. Hundreds of thousands in Mexico and Central America. It will seriously compound poverty in these countries.”

    In contrast, China is expected to out-compete even low-paying rivals. “[M]ost apparel brands and retailers do business there to remain competitive,” the Gap report states, noting that the country “doesn’t recognize workers rights to associate freely outside of government-approved organizations.”

    While China is already its largest supplier, Gap says it has “no plans at this time to exit Central America or any other region based on quota phase-out.”

    Dealing with the challenges of the MFA’s end will require a new wave of organizing, both in the U.S. and abroad. “We’re now pushing companies to look at how their business models affect standards,” says David Schilling of the ICCR. Other activists are exploring ways to pressure the industry to prioritize contractors with demonstrated records of respecting workers’ rights.

    Campaigners will have to grapple with intransigent retailers like Wal-Mart, a leader in shifting production to China. “We’re still dealing with many companies that won’t even admit that the problem exists,” Jeffcott says. “They’re where Gap was ten years ago.”

    “Companies wouldn’t be doing a thing if it weren’t for the pressure that they felt and that they continue to feel,” Kernaghan says. “The progress we’ve seen is a testament to all those high school students, religious people, union people who were out in front of the Gap back in 1995.”

    — Research assistance for this article provided by Jason Rowe.