Sweatshop Free Campaign Stanford
"My mother was a garment worker. In my earliest memories, I distinctly remember the colorful, eclectic shreds of unwanted fabric that she secretly picked off the floors of her factory and stitched together, crookedly so, to make enough clothing for her four children. She threw her back into the manual labor, often toiling long evenings and being rewarded piece by piece. Her income was never to exceed a predetermined amount, no matter how many pieces of clothing she was able to produce. Although we grew up in the ethnic enclave of Chinatown, while María, Lupe and Maura searched for economic livelihood in the streets of Los Angeles, the undocumented workers in L.A. and the unyielding garment workers in Chinatown, NY share the same plight of unspoken hardship."
— Theresa Zhen, Stanford University, Class of 2009
It's no accident that most of us in the Sweatshop Free Stanford Campaign have had a direct personal connection with issues of labor exploitation. One coordinator's great-grandfather worked on the transcontinental railroad that funded the Stanford family fortune. Others of us have family members who have been garment or migrant farm workers. Still others have observed sweatshops in action and visited organizations such as the one featured in Made in L.A. All of us share a passion for this work, and for many of us, it is because people we care about have faced workplace exploitation. We know their dignity and their courage, and for that reason, we applaud the fact that this documentary refrains from casting María, Lupe and Maura as victims. Instead, Made in L.A. introduces us to three strong, complicated and courageous women who strive to be agents of change. These heroines defy the typical caricature of undocumented garment workers — they are not beaten, shrouded in fear or tolerant of attempts by large companies to stifle workers' voices. Not only do we witness their fight for dignity, we also are brought to understand all of the forces that sometimes make it difficult for them to fight. Facing poverty, fleeing war, being separated from your children — in the face of these hardships, their story of self-empowerment further empowers students to fight on their behalf.
Made in L.A. succeeds because it personalizes an issue that can seem faceless and complicated to the general population. The sad fact is that too many people, including students, are unconcerned with the issue of labor exploitation because they are not faced with the reality of it in their day-to-day lives. As seen in our experience with anti-sweatshop activism, this paradox is further complicated by the role of the University in the production of college apparel. Our president highlights the need for global consciousness and the need for universities to be leaders in the advancement of human health and wellbeing. Yet, in today's day and age, college sweatshirts are made in sweatshops around the world; our school pride is plastered on our chests at the expense of human rights and the moral high ground. If university pride is implicated in the proliferation of sweatshop labor, then our fight is for women like María, Lupe and Maura in countries where unlike the United States, voicing concern over labor practices is prohibited and worse, cause for punishment.
Can the American Dream really hold up if it is born on the backs of workers who are denied dignity and respect? As portrayed starkly in Made in L.A., exploitation in sweatshops becomes a part of a large profit-seeking game in our consumerist society. Our campaign has exposed us to unions that are busted in order to diminish the collective voice of workers in Guatemala, Honduras, the Philippines and other places. The workers who are paid 11 cents for a garment priced at $30 are relegated to invisibility and quickly dismissed in their attempts to prove corporate accountability. Faced with these obstacles, it is understandably difficult to continue to fight. After all, how could any one person, one organization or one university alone hope to influence the "supreme governance" of economic laws? Convened by the Stanford Asian American Activism Committee, the Sweat-Free Stanford Coalition has stumbled upon an innovative and thoroughly researched answer to that question, and it is found in the independent monitoring agency called Worker Rights Consortium (WRC) and the agency's innovative program, the Designated Supplier Program (DSP). These programs seek to reduce the negative human impact of downward price pressures and profit-hungry CEOs by ensuring living wages to workers, a fair price standard for workers and contractors, humane working conditions for factories and the ability to unionize for worker solidarity. Because Stanford students believed in the integrity of these solutions, they advocated relentlessly for the University's entrance into these organizations. After an emotional non-violent sit-in involving 11 students, Stanford has signed on to the WRC.
For those of us who have never met Lupe, María or Maura, it is simple enough to sympathize with the fight and quietly express horror at sweatshop injustices. But when we forgo action we effectively ignore the most pervasive labor violations that exist in the United States. The women in this film are a true inspiration to our students who strive for the WRC and the DSP. Their astonishing strength teaches us that although the complications and repercussions of our actions are tremendous, we must remain driven in the fight for human dignity.
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Bethany Woolman and Theresa Zhen are members of the Sweatshop Free Stanford Campaign (SFSC), launched in 2006. SFSC has been campaigning for over a year to convince the Stanford University administration to partner with the Worker Rights Consortium and the Designated Suppliers Program, two organizations that protect the rights of garment workers who make university apparel. Bethany is a junior at Stanford University, majoring in Comparative Studies in Race an Ethnicity. Theresa is a junior at Stanford University, majoring in Economics and Sociology.