Interview with Erica Zeitlin
No More Sweatshops, Campaign for the Abolition of Sweatshops and Child Labor
Los Angeles, California
July 26, 2004

Erica Zeitlin works with the coalition No More Sweatshops on anti-sweatshop procurement policies in Los Angeles.

mR: microRevolt
EZ: Erica Zeitlin


mR: If you could start by giving us a little background about how the dawn of sweatshops relate to what is going on with today's sweatshop crisis.

EZ: Well first of all, I just think it’s important for people to remember that the crisis that we’re facing today in terms of sweatshop labor as part of the global marketplace is nothing new. It’s just a 21st century version of what’s happened before under different economic circumstances and different historical circumstances.... You could say roughly from the 1830s- to the 1930’s there was periodic struggle and uprising of immigrant workers to wipe out sweatshop conditions. Once again we are facing very similar kinds of conditions in factories today. There’s very different reasons for the resurgence of sweatshops, of course. Today we talk about globalization and we talk about the loss and hemorrhaging of American jobs overseas in the manufacturing sector. It’s a very complex story but the fact is that we have sweatshop labor and child labor in the United States once again -- and, of course, outside of the United States. You could estimate that about 2 billion people today in the world are surviving on less than 2 dollars a day. Most Americans can’t even conceive of that kind of an income. But that’s the reality.

What’s more disturbing is that in many cases, the workers and children working in these factories overseas are working for American companies, American multinationals, that are exploiting these people for the lowest possible pay rate that they can get away with. And so once again you see that there’s a movement that’s sprung up in the last decade or so in the U.S., starting with students in college campuses across the country, in which people are demanding once again fair labor practices and a sense of human decency in the treatment of workers. Let me briefly mention that most people don’t realize Los Angeles today, where I live and where I work, is the sweatshop capital of the United States.

mR: When you say that people don’t know that, do you mean locally or nationally?

EZ: I don’t think most people are aware that we basically live in two Americas today. There’s such a gap in income between the wealthy and the poor in this country, and that gap has increased so much, so dramatically in recent years at an unprecedented rate, really, as a result I think most middle class people in this country aren’t even aware that in these larger cities such as Los Angeles, New York and Chicago, you can drive 15 minutes and be in an entirely different economic climate in an underground economy, you could say the ugly under-belly of an economy. So I’m a middle class worker but I live a short drive from people who are earning far less than the legal minimum wage, in conditions that are unsanitary, very little air, no water, very few bathroom breaks, they’re treated essentially like servants, in many cases these workers have accepted these conditions to some extent because they’re very vulnerable. Many of them are undocumented workers and they fear being deported if they complain.

mR: So you’re saying a lot of the workers that are working in these conditions are immigrant workers?

EZ: Yeah, I’m not sure of the exact percentage but certainly it’s the case that most sweatshop workers in the United States are new immigrant workers, poor immigrant workers, many of them are Latinos from Mexico, from Central America, many others from the Far East.

mR: How do you gain sympathy among the American middle class to be sympathetic to these immigrants?

EZ: Well it’s a terrific question and it’s one that I’ve thought about because I think that most Americans have very good values, but they need to be educated and more aware of what’s going on, and so the challenge for people like myself who advocate on behalf of sweatshop workers is how do you send that message, how do you teach them, maybe not preach to them but let them know what’s going on, what the reality is. And I think that one way is going back to this history of ours that I was just talking about. I’m Jewish, I’m a descendent of sweatshop workers, my grandma you know worked in garment factories and that’s not at all unusual for Jewish immigrant workers and other immigrants at that time who came to this country. And so, now that I’ve entered the mainstream, I have a moral obligation to remember this history, to fight for people
who are facing the same conditions in a new era...

mR: Do you want to talk about what you’re doing in particular at No More Sweatshops! and what strategies you are taking.

EZ: Sure, there are many many different strategies to ending sweatshop labor, all of them important. And my hope is that people working in any of these strategies will connect and work together. My personal focus in abolishing sweatshops as part of a coalition called No More Sweatshops! or the fancy name, “Campaign for the Abolition of Sweatshops and Child Labor,” is on legislation. I work with former state Senator Tom Hayden in California and we basically draft laws, I work under his stewardship and under his guidance, and we draft laws that stops government agencies, public agencies from purchasing, or another fancy word -- “procuring” -- goods that were made under sweatshop labor. Most people don’t know that our own tax dollars are subsidizing sweatshop labor. How does that work, how is that possible people say. Well, let me tell you, it works this way: You pay your taxes to a government agency, such as your school district, your city, your county, even your federal taxes. Some of that money is channeled into procurement for firefighter uniforms or police uniforms for example. Well, it turns out that our law enforcement officers are wearing sweatshop garments procured from factories overseas that employ sweatshop workers, and in some cases child laborers. Most people don’t know that public dollars are being spent to perpetuate sweatshop labor, which is like terrible irony you know, because we have our labor laws on the books for a reason, and yet our own government undercuts its own legal system by employing sweatshop workers in an indirect way. So again what I hope to do is to increase pressure on public entities to stop buying things such as law enforcement uniforms that were made under sweatshop conditions.

mR: And what do you recommend to the average consumer who hears about this and is concerned about this but doesn’t really know what to do or how to find out about what to buy?

EZ: The problem is so overwhelming right now that with good reason people aren’t sure what they can do. The fact is that most clothing that we wear today is made in sweatshops. So the hope is that as the movement gets underway and continues to sweep across the country and more importantly more and more people care about the issue, that there will be more and more consumer demand from corporations for example to reform their practices in these factories that they’re contracted to. I brought a couple of workers from Bangladesh a couple of years ago as
part of the No More Sweatshops! coalition, and these young women were teenagers, actually started in factories working for Wal-Mart and Disney as adolescents. It’s a very common story in Bangladesh for child laborers to start working to try to earn an income for their family. And the more that these young women toured the country speaking about their plight, speaking about shifts that they endured, and I’m talking about 15-20 hour days in which they were earning 25 cents an hour and the more that we hear of these stories, the more people become engaged with this reality, the more pressure will be on the corporations to take serious action, and to not just cut and run when things get tough, when pressure builds up and consumers start demanding from Nike or the Gap for example that we want to buy clothes that weren’t made in sweatshops. Not just to give lip service but to really keep the factories where they are, but insure through really honest and sincere methods, such as contracting with credible independent monitoring agencies, to insure that conditions change in these factories. We do not want people to encourage the Gap, Nike, Disney or Wal-Mart to close up their factories and then put out of work all of these people who really are relying on the measly wages to just get by. We don’t want that. What we want is for companies to take some
responsibility to have the moral courage necessary to say, "Wait a minute, we’re all humans on this planet, let’s take this issue
seriously, let’s not close the doors and shut out the factory workers but rather stay where we are and make sure that the factory conditions improve."

mR: What does it take to make a major corporation like Nike or the Gap to listen to the activists or listen to the communities that are concerned with this?

EZ: Public pressure. It works. Consumers don’t realize how much power they have, it’s so easy to feel disenfranchised in this country, it is so easy to feel helpless, it’s so easy to become apathetic and a lot of that comes from cynicism because you know you feel like just one
person and the country is so big. In fact we have a lot of power as consumers, and you know who has the most power interestingly? Youths, high schoolers, because corporations target their advertising campaigns to these young people, because they know that they are the ones that are spending money for the products. Now if every teenager in this country started recognizing that their counterparts, the same age, in countries much poorer than the US, if every teenager decided, “I’m voting with my dollar. I may not be 18 years old to vote for the president but every time I spend a dollar on a piece of clothing, I am voting, and I don’t want to spend a dollar on a piece of sweatshop clothing”, the more that happens the more companies will buckle, will do the right thing. And it just takes a lot of endurance and a lot of tenacity and a lot of public education.