No Sweat & Oporajeo: Solidarity Across Borders

New Syndicalist spoke to Jay, an organiser from the campaigning organisation No Sweat and Ans, a member of the Oporajeo cooperative, about their latest project “This T-Shirt Fights Sweatshops”. The campaign aims to raise the issues of working conditions in the garment industry as well as provide means to offer practical support to worker-run businesses and trade unions in this sector.

No Sweat shirts can be ordered here.

How did No Sweat start? What are the organisation’s aims and how does it go about achieving them?

No Sweat started in the late 90s when activists from the Alliance for Workers Liberty took inspiration from the work United Students Against Sweatshops were doing in the US and decided to start campaigning on the sweatshop issue in the UK. They set up a broad-based group, working with activists from the anti-globalisation movement of the time as well as the trade union movement. Since then No Sweat has become an independent grassroots campaign group that works with workers rights groups and trade unions around the world.

No Sweat’s aim has always been to work in solidarity with ultra-exploited workers in developing countries as well as in the UK. While the focus has mainly been on the garment industry, historically targeting brands like Nike, GAP, and Disney for their use of sweatshop factories, there has always been a recognition that sweatshop conditions occur in multiple industries, and No Sweat has sought to make solidarity with workers in various industries around the world when their struggles arise.

Much of our work in the past has revolved around demonstrating outside companies that use sweatshops and organizing speaking tours of striking workers to help raise awareness. We have also been involved in uncovering sweatshops in London’s East End in partnership with the GMB, and have organised numerous fundraisers for workers groups around the world.

How did you make connections with workers in their home countries? How are you led/directed by these workers?

Our contact with workers over the years has been through trade union and activist networks. As workers struggles in sweatshops emerge we have either reached out to offer support or responded to calls for solidarity, and have asked groups involved in organising the workers how best we can support them.

For the most part we have organised protests against companies associated or involved in disputes and highlighted the cause of the workers taking strike action. Where possible we have arranged speaker tours in the UK for workers to share their experience and build support in the UK amongst trade unionists and activists.

We believe it is fundamental to any solidarity campaign that the lead is taken by the people calling for solidarity, and the forms that solidarity should take is directed by them. For that reason No Sweat has never called for outright boycotts of major fashion labels, primarily as the workers have never asked for it. In the instances where organised workers have called for boycotts then we have backed those calls, but the nature of the globalised economy is that, should a boycott have an impact, corporations have the power to blame third parties in the supply chain and cancel the contract with an exploitative employer and move to another factory, in another country even, thereby whitewashing their involvement in exploitation in an attempt to placate the campaigners, while the worker in the factory lose their jobs.

In place of this No Sweat has always called on people to campaign on behalf of the workers and call for justice, help workers in the factories win their struggles and put pressure on the brands to help accord workers their rights, not simply cut and run. For No Sweat, the only way to tackle the sweatshop industry is for workers to organize.

How do you plan to avoid the pitfalls associated with consumer activism?

In the last ten years the nature of activism has changed. The kind of protesting we employed in the past, getting people to picket flagship stores etc, has been somewhat superseded by online activism. To add to this our activist base shifted as soon after the Tories came back into power and instituted their austerity measures, many of our activists turned their attention to campaigns combatting this. This led to a few years of No Sweat being on hiatus, before we returned with our new T-shirt project.

This project is labeled as the T-shirt that Fights Sweatshops, as we are actively sourcing blank T-shirts to import to the UK from workers co-ops run by former sweatshop workers. We aim to use the profits to fund independent trade unions is their struggles to organise workers still working in sweatshop conditions.

Alongside the rise of “clicktivism”, we have also seen a distinct shift in the world of fashion towards an ethical positioning that is definitely a response ethical consumerism. The rise of things like fair trade and the emergence of the “conscious consumer” have made practically the all major brands now make a show of their various ethical statements, and ever more independent “ethical” brands appear. We have noticed that the focus of this new consumer ethics is mainly touting eco credentials, there is a real lack of engagement with workers rights.

The fact is sweatshops never went away, but the focus of ethical concerns in relations to clothes is often on protecting the environment with only a token mention of workers rights and rarely any of trade unions. While the environment issue is hugely important, it seems that there is an element of ‘greenwashing’ going on and people are encouraged to feel that they are somehow making a difference in buying a certain item.

Our new T-shirt project is an attempt to subvert this consumer activism by creating a product that is making a direct financial impact on the campaign. By working with cooperatives run by former sweatshops workers we aim to help these businesses flourish and highlight an alternative to the typical capitalist business model prevalent in both the back end and front end of the garment industry. We know that the garment industry is one of huge profits, built on the back of exploitation, by operating inside that industry and directing some of those profits towards helping to organise worker in fighting that exploitation we hope to develop a new circular economy.

In doing so we bring attention to the importance of workers rights in the garment industry to the consumer, highlight campaigns that fight the exploitation in the industry and put funding unions and co-operatives forward as the solution in place of benevolent capitalism that dominates “ethical fashion”.

Do you feel that this model of funding project through co-operative production could be applied in other areas? Do you feel there’s scope for expanding this “circular economy” or is it just a means to an end?

While our T-shirt project was initially a way of showing that it isn’t that hard to allow workers their rights at work and to earn a living wage, suggesting that if a grassroots campaign group like No Sweat can do it, then the dominant big money corporations of the garment industry can certainly afford to do it, it has quickly grown into something more. We aim to build connections between different movements, foster relationships that could lead to various forms of collaboration, as well as raise funds to help workers organise themselves.

We hope that this model can be an inspiration for other campaign groups to think about how they can create something similar. There is definitely the potential to develop this model to other areas, and I think this is already under way. Start-up businesses have become commonplace in recent years and as more people are looking to more small-scale industries there is potential for activists to take part and think about lead by example in a venture that can then help fund and support the cause they fighting for. Also there is the chance to act as an example for new social enterprise types to follow our example and use their profits to fund progressive movements. Where people work cooperatively and redistribute the wealth generated by their work they can look at funding other campaign work in other areas. Our production partners in Bangladesh, for example, have taken some of the profits raised from their garment contracts (50% of which is distributed among the workers) to invest in green energy solutions, both in their factory and outside. They recently built a small hydro plant (pico hydro) in a remote village outside the capital that has brought electricity and revolutionised life for the 40 families living there.

Is the role of Western workers to primarily use their better position to offer solidarity to workers in the developing world? Or do they have their own independent role to play?

I think it is both. Western worker have an element of privilege in that they operate in richer countries with long traditions of workers struggling for their rights. Those struggles have been long and hard but the results are the legally enshrined standards that many of us work in today, but we can’t be complacent, as we know that these rights aren’t guaranteed, and they must be defended. But Western workers can offer support to workers in developing countries where the union movement is newer and in an earlier stage of development. While avoiding the traps of paternalism or a colonial mentality, Western workers can offer solidarity and use their privilege to help in the struggles of others and share their experience and tactics. But times are changing, the rise of the gig economy in the west has seen a return of precarious work, and new movements are emerging to combat that. Some of the most inspiring industrial action is taking place at a grassroots level in the UK and this, in turn, can act as an example for others taking steps in tackling their own oppression. In a world of fast-paced news cycles, shifting political landscapes and the potential for the spread of sweatshop conditions, acts of solidarity between workers across national divides becomes even more important.

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Can you give us a bit of an overview of your story so far? When and why was it formed? Have you faced any challenges?

Ans: Oporajeo (Invincible) was set up after the Rana Plaza disaster on April 24th, 2013 to create job opportunities for some of the survivors as a rehabilitation initiative. It was inaugurated on June 24th, 2013 and started its operation on July 1st, 2013.

Right after the disaster funds were collected to start a rehabilitation program for the victims and survivors. Many drives were organised to support those affected by the disaster with direct donations, medical support, reallocation programs, cattle distribution and different ways of income earning such as tea stalls, tailor shop equipment and rations provided to some of these victims. But these were unsuccessful in securing the livelihood of the victims by earning a guaranteed monthly income. That’s why we started Oporajeo.

How do you anticipate the No Sweat project will impact the cooperative?

Ans: Worker ownership and/or worker cooperatives operate on a different, more challenging, business model. They need lots of time and investment to develop the business to a point where they are sustainable and can support the workers within them. This is only possible if people care and we can draw on that wider support and solidarity. No Sweat is doing a great job to promote worker cooperatives as an alternative model. The awareness that they generate is important in building that wider support and solidarity that we need for the initiative to be successful.

What are your views on non-cooperative businesses in your industry? What do you feel are the best means of improving workers conditions in this area?

Ans: We don’t argue that all factories have to be worker owned. There are many ways that workers’ conditions can and should be improved within non-cooperative industries. However we do know that many factories treat their workers as machines. They have no right to do that and we should explore alternatives.

Does the co-operative work with other unions in the area?

Ans: Yes, we work with trade unions. In Oporajeo the biggest trade union in Bangladesh is our very good friend and supportive of what we are doing. Many of our cooperative members are active organisers in different trade unions.

What are your plans for the future?

Ans: We want to develop the industry, as well as support the workers of this industry. Fundamentally we want to change the system. We want to make the case that the cheap fashion trend is not truly cheap. It costs the lives of hundreds of thousands of sweatshop workers and is founded on the bodies of tens of thousands of boys and girls. If we want to live, if we want to save this world, if we want to build a beautiful world for our next generation there has to be a change.

We are planning to setup a socially compliant factory very soon with much more production capacity. Our aim to is to expand the cooperative by at least 2,000 members by the end of 2020.

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