Protests are to hit the clothes chain Gap next week. Why Gap? Why next week? Because next Thursday, 8 March, is International Women's Day, a day established nearly 100 years ago, inspired by women workers in the New York garment industry, many of who were immigrants. They struggled to survive the horrible sweatshops but they also fought back and organised.
Today Gap is one of the biggest employers of their modern day equivalents. Gap workers, often women, often children, toil for up to 15 hours a day and more. They are sexually harassed by their managers. They are sacked when they complain or resist.
Gap gets its clothes made in over 12,000 factories across 42 countries. The locations of its factories are secret, but campaigners, union organisers and workers have tracked them down and exposed the conditions. Gap's Russian factory workers-many of them Chinese immigrants-are paid just 11 cents an hour.
Gap workers in Honduras are subjected to forced pregnancy tests, forced overtime which means a 14-hour day, allowed to go to the bathroom only twice in that time, and paid a wage which meets only one third of their basic needs. Cambodian garment workers making products for Gap were shot at by security guards in June last year when they struck for a pay rise.
The manager of a Gap factory in El Salvador sacked 150 workers in 1995 because they wanted a union, and vowed that 'blood will flow'. In September 1999 over 800 workers in Indonesia were sacked by a firm which produces for Gap after a month-long strike. They wanted a pay rise to take them to the minimum wage level, meal allowances and union rights.
This is how Gap makes the khakis, the jeans and the T-shirts that clean-cut models advertise on TV-and which are sold to us for a small fortune. The protests are about solidarity with these workers, and about exposing a multinational that rips us all off.
Women and children in Cambodian torment
Gap claims it sticks to a strict code of conduct governing its employment practices. But the BBC's Panorama visited factories in Cambodia, south east Asia, which make clothes for Gap, in October last year. It found women workers in the capital, Phnom Penh, living four to a room in rat-infested dormitories without running water.
Gap's 'code of conduct' says workers must have one day off in seven. These workers all worked a seven-day week. One worker, Chan Sophan, said, 'They force us to do whatever they want. If we refuse, they make us sign a refusal. After three times they'll fire us.' Gap's 'code of conduct' also says workers must not be forced to do overtime. Seung Pov told the programme makers, 'Today I have to work overtime until 10 o'clock at night. I begin at 6.15 in the morning and should finish at 2.15pm but I have to work right through until 10.15 at night. No matter how hard you try, you cannot refuse.'
Another woman worker told of how she did refuse to do overtime once. 'When I came back the following day to work the manager pulled my hair. He swore at me and said something in a language I didn't understand.'
The workers were paid £8 a week-the legal minimum in Cambodia. 'We're cheaper than the price of a single shirt and I think we've been working like hell,' said one. Gap also says it bans child labour in its factories.
Panorama spoke to 12 year old and 14 year old workers, also living in shanty towns, who had not seen their parents for months. Chea Sokhom, who started work at 13, says, 'We're not allowed to sit. We have to work standing up until the end of the shift at 10pm so at meal times we try to rest by sitting down a little, but when I'm caught I have clothes thrown at me and I'm badly scolded.'
Twelve year old Sun Thyda gets $40 a month. After rent and food she has nothing left. She cannot send money home to her parents who borrowed money to pay an agent twice that much to get her the job in the first place. Neil Kearney from the International Textile, Garment and Leather Workers' Federation says:
'Major companies like Gap, Nike, and all those other retailers, have almost a daily presence in these companies. They are greatly concerned with quality. Their quality controllers are there. Their buyers are there. They insist on high standards as far as quality is concerned. There's absolutely no reason why they cannot insist on the same standards for working conditions and why they cannot monitor those on virtually a daily basis.'
The company benefits
- Gap made $1.1 billion profit in 1999.
It spent $550 million on advertising in 1999.
- Chief executive Millard Drexler gets $172.8 million in salary, bonuses and share options.
- Chairman and company founder Donald Fisher is worth $8 billion and is one of the 100 richest people in the world.
- Fisher has contributed at least $220,000 to the Republicans since 1994. He also donated $45,000 to the Democrats and funds right wing think tanks.
- Clinton appointed him to the US Trade Representatives' Advisory Council for Trade Negotiations where he helped shape the North American Free Trade Agreement and the General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS) which prise open the world for multinationals like Gap to exploit.
- Fisher is one of the most powerful unelected figures in San Francisco. He was the driving force behind plans to sell the Presidio National Park to private development interests, to turn a San Francisco school over to a private corporation, and to privatise the development of a new University of California campus.
Multinationals bring misery
Don't big companies at least bring jobs to the Third World? Doesn't that employment raise wages and living standards in the long term? That is what defenders of multinational corporations say. The claim was repeated in the Guardian recently.
'Nicaraguan workers say while their conditions are not great, they would rather have the sales and the jobs they bring,' wrote Charlotte Denny. She described how Nicaraguan workers picketed the US embassy in Managua recently in favour of free trade and globalisation. She claimed they wanted an end to campaigns against sweatshop labour because they threaten to cut jobs.
In fact their management forced them to go on the protest after their trade union representatives and hundreds of other workers were sacked after they attempted to win an improved pay deal. Anita Roddick, the founder of the Body Shop who recently came back from Nicaragua, exposed Denny's claims.
She wrote to the Guardian and explained how the so called picket in favour of free trade was 'not a voluntary protest but a carefully orchestrated piece of propaganda by the company owners. Workers were ordered to go on the march-if they didn't they were threatened with docked wages and attendance bonuses, even the sack.'
Denny also claimed that Nicaraguan garment workers 'are getting paid well above the minimum wage'. But experts calculate that a basic living wage in Nicaragua would be about $190 a month. The garment workers are lucky if they get $140 a month.
As Roddick says, 'They live in mud-floored shacks with no sanitation or direct access to running water. They are paid less than 20 cents for every pair of jeans exported and sold in the US for $30 or more.' Campaigning against multinationals like Gap is not about fighting to lose workers' jobs in the Third World.
It is about standing alongside them as they fight for their rights, as they fight to win decent wages and living conditions, and organise unions, for themselves and their families. It is about fighting to make Gap cough up from its massive profits. We can help the fight by exposing the conditions firms like Gap make their workers endure. And in the process we can build the global solidarity we need to beat their system.
Close the GAP – Solidarity with women workers around the world
SHEFFIELD: Saturday 3 March, 1pm, outside new Gap store, opposite Old Town Hall
LONDON: Thursday 8 March, 1-7pm, 376 Oxford Street
MANCHESTER: Thursday 8 March, 4pm, St Anne's Square
EDINBURGH: Saturday 10 March, 1pm, Princes Street
GLASGOW: Saturday 10 March, 1pm, Argyle Street
LEEDS: Saturday 10 March, 3pm, The Briggate, city centre