There used to be a time when big corporations were worried about rebellious and anticorporate students on university and college campuses. Rallies, teach-ins, boycotts, and other forms of protest took on corporations for polluting, discriminating, exploiting consumers, backing military dictatorships, and other misbehaviors.
In 1970, Earth Day events involving nearly 2,000 colleges shook and exposed corporate polluters. It was a mass-media event, because then the media took the issues seriously.
Big Business Day in 1980 concerned Irving Shapiro, CEO of chemical giant DuPont, so much that he collaborated with his friend Lane Kirkland, head of the AFL-CIO, no less, in dampening organized labor’s passion for this teach-in.
But in the past 20 years, with the exception of the movement advocating divestment in South Africa and some student public interest research groups, the campuses have been more than quiet. They have succumbed to the temptations of the computer economy and the investment bankers. Students by and large have viewed college as on-the-job training for what they hope will be lucrative employment after graduation. They have not wanted activism on their résumés.
Well, executives can start getting worried again. This fall, on more than 200 campuses, the anti-sweatshop, anti-child-labor movement will likely be strong. In concert with labor and religious groups, students will focus on large retailers, such as Wal-Mart, that buy merchandise from Third World nations that grind their workers to the ground.
Textile workers in a Bangladesh factory that makes clothes for Wal-mart are paid between 9¢ and 20¢ an hour — far less than the countries’ legal 33¢ minimum wage — seven days a week.
The National Labor Committee, based in New York City, is documenting these abuses. It investigates name-brand products and companies, such as Liz Claiborne, with their celebrity endorsers, and encourages students to trace the money from purchases in on-campus shops to miserable dungeonlike factories in Asia and South America. And from Duke University to Harvard University to the University of Wisconsin, students have linked their knowledge to action. They have pressured retailers on campus and of to publicly disclose the factory names and addresses.
Finally students are realizing the power of their purchasing dollars. They’re telling these U.S. multinationals to start disclosing more information about the brutal conditions imposed on the young women and children slaving for their business partners in other countries.
Charles Kernaghan, director of the NLC, has calculated that Salvadoran women are paid 74¢ for each $198 Liz Claiborne jacket they sew. That means their wages are less than one half of 1 percent of the retail price that American consumers pay for the jacket.
In the United States, the labor cost to sew a garment typically is 10 percent of the retail price. By moving production abroad, Kernaghan says, “the companies have almost wiped out the cost involved in sewing a garment.”
The coming year will see a more intense focus on the booming practice of using child laborers under conditions unimaginable to most Americans. The same Americans who unwittingly buy the fancy items. International trade in products made by children, in many cases under indentured servitude, is legal under the World Trade Organization established through the GATT treaty that President Clinton and the congressional Republicans turned into federal law in 1994.
Together with student groups at many colleges and the People of Faith Network, the NLC is planning demonstrations, world petition drives, the release of thousands of pages of internal company records, educational videos, and student reports on overseas conditions. The NLC will ask politicians to support linking trade to human rights.
High school students will be closely involved in these drives as well. All these activities will culminate Dec. 9, in Human Rights Day, with candlelight vigils and walks for conscience across America.
Linked to standards of justice for the oppressed children and young adults laboring for the massive profits of Wal-Mart, Nike, and other giant companies, consumer dollars can speak power and truth. The alternative is for unknowing shoppers to keep allowing these abuses that lead to obscene profits for corporations.
To obtain an action kit for the coming events, write to the National Labor Committee, 275 Seventh Avenue, New York, New York 10001. The NLC Web site is www.nlcnet.org.