September 16, 2013
Fashion models and a Bangladeshi labor organizer joined some two dozen local activists outside a New York Fashion Week show on Sept. 6 for a press conference highlighting the use of sweatshop labor by Nautica and the VF Corporation, which owns Nautica and 29 other garment companies.
|Photo: Josh Koenig|
“Who is responsible for this?” Akter asked the protesters. “Definitely the retailers like VF,” she said, answering herself.
Corporate responsibility was the focus of the press conference, which included Sara Ziff, a model and activist who modeled in a Nautica advertising campaign ten years ago. The organizers—the International Labor Rights Forum (ILRF) and United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS)—are pushing U.S. apparel manufacturers and retailers to sign the Accord on Fire and Building Safety, an agreement that would commit the companies to improving conditions in the Bangladeshi factories where many of their products are assembled.
So far 86 companies, largely European, have signed on, but major U.S. retailers like VF and Walmart have refused, insisting that their own monitoring system will be adequate.
From Dhaka to Greenwich Village
U.S. anti-sweatshop activists are hoping that the Rana Plaza disaster will arouse the public here to demand safety conditions for overseas garment workers in the same way that the 146 deaths in the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York built up the public pressure that resulted in a number of U.S. workplace safety laws. USAS’s Caitlin MacLaren noted the parallel at the press conference; the Greenwich Village building where the fire broke out is still standing today and is part of the campus at New York University, MacLaren’s school.
“This year,” she warned the retailers, “students across the country will be saying: ‘You are going to sign the accord.’”
But even with Sara Ziff and four other models, the press conference faced a lot of competition on the sidewalk outside Fashion Week. Vendors were hawking a “fashion model diet,” young women in bright red were rollerskating to promote some other product, and several nearly naked activists painted with green scales were promoting a campaign by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) to protect endangered reptiles. Media coverage of the anti-sweatshop event was mostly limited to a dispatch by Agence France Presse and an entry in the Fashionista blog.
But the main problem wasn’t the other actions at Fashion Week: it was simply the fact that the news cycle had moved on. On the day of the press conference the headlines were dominated by the threat of a U.S. air strike on Syria, where the White House said 1,429 civilians were killed on Aug. 21 in a gas attack by government forces. For most people in the United States, the deaths in Syria had displaced any memory of the comparable number of deaths in the Bangladeshi factories that produce the clothes sold here.
Circumventing the News Cycle
Not everyone has forgotten Rana Plaza, of course. Akter and ILRF and USAS activists held two brief protests after the press conference, one outside Lincoln Center--closely watched by the New York police--and another at a Children’s Place outlet some 15 blocks up Broadway; the corporation had some of its clothes made at a Rana Plaza factory, but so far it hasn’t paid any compensation for the victims. “I’m going to put this on my Facebook page,” a well-dressed older woman said as she stopped to photograph the Children’s Place protest. ILRF director of organizing Liana Foxvog started to explain the labor situation in Bangladesh, but the woman cut her off. “I know,” she said. “It’s disgusting.”
Other passersby would pause to look at the protest. Most seemed to have forgotten about the April disaster—one of the worst industrial accidents in history—or maybe had never heard of it, although they were sympathetic when they learned the protest’s purpose.
“I didn't think about the garment workers who made the clothes I was wearing,” Ziff had remarked at the press conference when talking about her time modeling for Nautica. A visit to Bangladesh in the summer of 2012 was “eye-opening,” she said, and led her to work in the anti-sweatshop campaign.
Activists are now confronting the problem of how to open more eyes, and how to mobilize public support without having to rely on the media. Akter, for example, was stopping in New York on her way to the AFL-CIO’s Sept. 8-11 convention in Los Angeles. She expected to work with union leaders on strategies for the campaign to get U.S. companies to sign the fire and building safety accord.
At the press conference youth organizer Rishi Singh pointed out the importance of building direct links between low-wage workers here and in the Global South. Singh, who works with the Queens-based South Asian organization DRUM (Desis Rising Up and Moving), described the situation of South Asian immigrant workers in New York. “These are the conditions we face here,” he said, “but we just need to look around” to see how much worse it is in places like Bangladesh. There’s a real potential for direct worker solidarity there, Singh indicated, adding: “The struggle of one is the struggle of all.”
David L. Wilson is co-author, with Jane Guskin, of The Politics of Immigration: Questions and Answers, Monthly Review Press, July 2007. He also co-edits Weekly News Update on the Americas, a summary of news from Latin America and the Caribbean.