Students lead fight against sweatshop labor

MINNEAPOLIS (College Press Exchange) — Anne Nicholson remembers when she and her roommates at the College of St. Catherine learned from news reports that The Gap used sweatshops to churn out trendy jeans and shirts.
“It was really kind of overwhelming to see how much (Gap clothing) we had in our closets,” recalls Nicholson, who now works for the Minnesota Hispanic Education Program. “It was just kind of shocking.”
She and her roommates, founders of a campus social justice group called The Closet Activists, quickly put together a letter-writing campaign urging The Gap to clean up its labor practices. After all, “we’re the age demographic they target,” she said. “We’re the ones who buy their clothes.”
Because of their purchasing power, college students are discovering the impact they can make by protesting sweatshops, child labor and other abuses linked to some of the nation’s largest retailers. Groups such as The Closet Activists and Students Stop Sweatshops are pushing retailers to improve conditions of factory workers, and they’re beginning to see results.
Student activists say they got involved when reports of horrific working conditions surfaced in the news. Beginning in August 1995, raids by U.S. Department of Labor investigators uncovered illegal sweatshops operating in the United States and captured headlines.
“Sweatshops, part of the garment industry’s past, continue to be a tragic part of the industry’s present,” said U.S. Labor Secretary Robert Reich.
The Labor Department began its “No Sweat Initiative” in December 1995, conducting enforcement sweeps in major garment centers. The department also issued its first “Trendsetters” list, highlighting major retailers with high labor standards.
“Many in the American apparel industry provide good jobs, decent wages and fine clothes — and they deserve our support,” Reich said. “But the firms that utilize and tolerate sweatshops make it harder for honest shops to compete in the marketplace.
“Sweatshops are an ugly stain on American fashion, and it is up to all of us to remove it.”
In the fall of 1995, Nicholson and other students in The Closet Activists hooked up with a campaign sponsored by the National Labor Committee, an independent human rights group, that targeted The Gap.
In less than four days, they collected 120 letters written by students to The Gap. They also held a mock fashion show, featuring student models sporting Gap clothes with tags that read “Made by Slave Labor” and “Demand Corporate Accountability.”
Nicholson said the group was pleased by The Gap’s quick response. Gap officials twice visited the campus to meet with The Closet Activists, and eventually set up an independent monitoring program for its factory in El Salvador.