A New Push Against Sweatshops

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Student protests may be loud, but can factory workers hear them? Activists at 40 universities demonstrated last week to demand that their schools license college-logo t-shirts and other apparel only to "sweat-free" factories that are certified to pay fair wages. The protests are the latest wave in what began as movement to monitor working conditions at factories. TIME's Jyoti Thottam spoke with Pietra Rivoli, an economist at Georgetown and author of The Travels of a T-Shirt in the Global Economy, to explain what student activists can and can't do for the world's 40 million garment workers:

TIME: Your book begins memorably with a scene in which you're watching a protest at Georgetown in 1999. How has the movement against sweatshops changed since then?

RIVOLI: The movement really has evolved because their initial demands [such as factory codes of conduct and disclosure of supplier names and addresses] have virtually all been met. This recent idea of factory certification is building on what they got a couple of years ago.

TIME: There is a perception that the anti-sweatshop movement is just a futile effort to shut down factories.

RIVOLI: I don't think it's futile. Are they ever going to shut down every sweatshop in every country? No. But by shining these lights in different places, they really have uncovered things that companies in their own interest are trying to clean up. We're not going to get rid of the realities of global competition. But these companies, like Nike or Gap, have global brands that they want to protect.

TIME: Does it really matter which t-shirt you buy?

RIVOLI: I think it does. If consumers weren't thinking this way, companies would be a lot less responsive. Right now, consumers don't really have a way to get information about where exactly their clothing is coming from—that's a barrier. We have labels on your eggs, "cage-free hens." They need to get something along those lines to allow the consumer to discriminate.

TIME: Do you think that this movement has made a significant impact on working conditions?

RIVOLI: I do. I've seen this with my own eyes. The factories that I went to last year were all very concerned when the monitors are coming, and whether they're complying with these codes.

TIME: Do you think monitoring really works?

RIVOLI: I have heard a lot of stories—we're putting this in for the monitors, we've got this other set of records. This is a relatively new field, but they're getting better. They're getting more resources from the companies. At some point the factories say, okay, this is here to stay.

TIME: What lessons can today's activists learn from the history of other anti-sweatshop movements?

RIVOLI: The main one is that these apparel jobs are a very important means for young women in these countries to gain autonomy. The other big lesson is that it can't be just about activism. This is most clear to me in the case of China, where we do not have freedom of the press. If the press is free and can report on what's happening, then change happens.

TIME: If you're not paid very much and working 16 hours a day in a factory, why is that better than working on a farm?

RIVOLI: In many poor countries, if the daughter is told who she's going to marry, and told that she's going to live in the village with her husband's family, she really has very little opportunity to make her own decisions. If she comes for a while to work in a factory, she has her own money. In family agriculture, it's never your money. It's whatever somebody decides to give you. For many people this is tremendously valuable, because then they can step up.

TIME: So do you still need the activists?

RIVOLI: I think you need both. You need companies investing in these countries, so women have employment opportunities, and you also need these forces of conscience. Without the activists, in the United States we would still have child labor, we would still have 16-hour days.