The Context of Sweatshops

Every now and then, human beings are burned alive, die from an explosion, under a building that caved in, take their own lives or collapse due to exhaustion having worked for hours and hours on end in one of the many facilities across the world colloquially referred to as sweatshops. What follows usually entails some moral outrage in western social media and public discourse, a few stories on the generally horrible conditions facing vast amounts of workers that we otherwise never hear of, and some amount of debate concerning the advantages and disadvantages of this particular arrangement.

Within the discussions that follow in the wake of such events, unless we get caught up in particularities or dead ends, we inevitably at some point arrive at the baseline argument: Yes, the sweatshops and the conditions are bad, but it is the best option for many of these people. Charts are presented. Graphs displayed. Look, these poor countries are pulling themselves up by their bootstraps. They have growth. We get cheap clothes, and they get a chance to at least earn a living. No one forces them to work in the factories, in fact, they are lining up for the jobs. Isn’t this the definition of win-win?

Before addressing the core of this argument, it might be worth to refresh our memories concerning exactly what kind of conditions we’re dealing with for these sweatshop workers around the world. On April 24th, 2013, a nine-story building in Dhaka, Bangladesh, housing thousands of workers, collapsed, leaving over 1000 dead and 2500 injured. [1] Despite large, visible and growing cracks in multiple parts of the building, textile workers were “ordered” to return to work a day after the building was briefly evacuated. For many of them, that was the last thing they did as the building came down and buried them alive. Some spent days under the rubble, desperately screaming for help among decomposing bodies. Yet others lost limbs, friends or family members. Still, a year after the accident, investigations uncovered continued systemic abuse, for instance regarding “girls as young as 13 forced to work 11 hours a day in unsafe conditions”. [2]

On the night of August 12th this year, in the huge Port of Tianjin in eastern China, an explosion killed over 100 people, injuring almost 700, in a curious mix of state bureaucratic nepotism and corruption, capitalist pressures, and systemic safety violations. [3] Meanwhile, in Qatar, approximately 1200 migrant workers have died building facilities for the FIFA World Cup to be held there in 2022, with another 2800 projected to die by the time the games take place. [4]

We could keep going, just to drive home the point that these are not isolated incidents, but a reoccurring trend – from simply exhausting work, to straight out lethal working conditions. Beyond these spectacular death tolls, lies an entire world of worker health issues, human trafficking, inhumane work hours and degrading treatment – from diamond mines in South Africa, through soft drink producers in India to garment factories in Central and South America. Just in Malaysia, there’s an estimated 2 million foreign workers, often tricked into debt contracts by agents, and stuck indefinitely in what can only be described as modern day slavery. [5]

We often picture all these things as a distant phenomena, at least at arms length from our western societies. But when 7 Chinese sweatshop workers died in Italy in 2013, the joys of global capitalism had, geographically at least, gone almost full circle. [6] The mood could hardly be more somber as the Reuters article simply states that

One of the dead suffocated as he tried to escape through a window guarded by iron bars.

No further explanation needed.

But it doesn’t end there, as for instance the slave-like conditions of workers in the American prison-industrial complex testify to. Truth is, the effects of our system are not only felt someplace far away, in exploited countries throughout Africa, Asia or the Middle East, but are present all around us, also in western societies. They manifest as alienated and largely empty labor, “bullshit jobs” to lend David Graeber’s term, the constant conflict over wages and other concessions, and the way in which we, despite all so called progress and technology, often work more and endure greater psychological duress than did people of feudal societies or hunter-gatherers. Thus the standard liberal left narrative of unfortunate injustices far away that we collectively benefit from, rests on a false premise that here at home, everything is pretty much fine.

In fact, what the last 30 or so years of neoliberal policies have shown, is that not only are countries outside the western sphere exploited, coerced and dominated, but this very exploitation is used as a leverage to undermine hard fought gains even in the wealthy parts of the world, fought for by anarchists and other socialists, in Haymarket, in the streets of Paris, or on the barricades in Barcelona. Because when cheap labor is available abroad, even social democrats succumb to the pressures of market logic and see themselves forced to squeeze domestic wages, undermine working conditions and deregulate markets in the name of keeping national industries competitive. What we have seen since the late 1970s is not a political shift, but an ideological one. It is not the case of right wing parties taking over political power everywhere, but to a large extent also social democratic governments, left drifting aimlessly amidst the debris of shipwrecked Keynesian policies, capitulating to the hegemony of neoliberalism.

The notion that we’re universally benefiting, because we can buy cheap clothes, does not tell this full story. What we see when the veil of social constructs taken for granted is removed, are various groups of working class people pitted against each other and irrational use of both human and natural resources. The win-win, it turns out, applies to capitalist interests or corrupt bureaucracies, not the relationship of western workers versus those of the global south. We might be privileged compared to them, but we’re all worse off because of the coercive impositions of neoliberalism and, in the end, capitalism. The division is thus not a geographical one, this place versus that, but one of social relations – class versus class.

The story only gets better when we start to investigate why it happens to be the case, that all these workers are available and dirt cheap in all these countries, “voluntarily” entering death traps and enduring these horrible conditions. This piece of historical context goes back to the colonial era, when colonial powers seized and tried to put their new domains into good use:

In most places in Africa, Asia, and South America, colonisers initially had a very difficult time getting natives to work in their mines, factories, and plantations. To solve this problem, they either forcibly removed farmers from their land or levied onerous taxes in order to coerce them into seeking wage work, all under the guise of the “civilising mission”. This caused hundreds of thousands of people to move to industrial cities where they constituted a reserve army of workers willing to take whatever job they could find. [7]

Enclosures of commons, high taxes, brutal oppression – wait, haven’t we heard this story before, in another time and place? Indeed, it is precisely what had transpired in the heartland of industrial capitalism, not long before, and what is probably best known as the process described by Marx as primitive accumulation – an early, initial form of building up capital and, “enticing”, what was earlier largely self-sustainable farmers and rural populations to submit to wage labor. More recently, David Harvey revamped this term into accumulation by dispossession, which seems apt, because there is nothing strictly initial or primitive about this accumulation, and it has been ongoing, in different forms and parts of the world, ever since it began in the early days of European capitalism.

When the former colonies increasingly started to gain independence, new ways were added to the arsenal of incentivizing impoverished populations to perform work for the benefit of capital accumulation. One of these was national bondage, as for instance was the case for Haiti. All around the world, former colonial masters demanded compensation for the work they had, erm, overseen in said colonies. These societies were facing the option of complying or dealing with worldwide trade embargoes or military interventions, and so money continued to pour from the global south to the global north, often with humanitarian crises as an ignored side effect. This also happened to countries like Madagascar, Bolivia, the Philippines – the list could go on. Yet others, finding themselves on the wrong side (i.e. not the side of western powers and capitalist interests) of a conflict, were made to pay reparations.

With neoliberalism, a new tool emerged to further squeeze populations in the global south, and this was the process which seriously triggered the new age of sweatshops. In the wake of the crises of the 1970s, with rampant inflation combined with stagnation around the western world, the tune of the new ideology was privatization, deregulation and globalization, albeit somewhat selectively. New global institutions, such as the IMF, were central in administering the implementation of new policies in the countries of the global south. Those struggling with debt or poor finances – often themselves symptoms of earlier and ongoing domination by former colonial nations with imperialist ambitions – were offered a way out: Introduce the policies we require, and we will lend you money. This was the start of structural adjustment programmes (SAPs).

These deals were usually constructed to remove trade tariffs and subsidies in poor countries, deregulating their markets and opening them up for foreign investment, and removing any existing safety nets and public spending on education, health or other related things. Without the protective tariffs, these countries markets were flooded with cheap, subsidized western crops and other farm products, effectively putting entire domestic sectors out of business, once again, driving desperate populations into city centers where, you guessed it, western capitalists, thanks to the new policies, could buy up land, build factories, and take advantage of desperate people in an attempt to restore some of the profits that had gone missing since the end of the Keynesian era. To add insult to injury, these deals were often worked out with unaccountable and corrupt political elites, and much of the loans would often disappear never to be seen again by the general population. Where populations tried to or successfully overthrew such arrangements, outraged western interests would make the populations pay reparations.

An interesting case in point is the story of Ladakh, an isolated and sparsely populated area in the northernmost India. The inhabitants of this area lived without major outside interference, in agricultural communities on the mountainsides and plateaus of western Himalaya. They were self-sustainable, enjoyed good conditions with a lot of leisure time, and none of the social problems associated with western lifestyles – unemployment, inequality, and so on.

In the mid 1970s, Ladakh was suddenly thrown open to the outside world. Cheap, subsidized food, trucked in on subsidized roads, by vehicles running on subsidized fuel undermined Ladakh’s local economy. At the same time, the Ladakhis were bombarded with advertising and media images, that romanticized western style consumerism, and made their own culture seem pitiful by comparison. [8]

Suddenly unemployment, poverty, divisiveness, inequality and even violence cause by social tensions became part of the everyday life for the people of Ladakh.

These changes weren’t the result of innate human greed or some sort of evolutionary force. They happened far too suddenly for that. They were clearly the direct result of the exposure to outside economic pressures. [T]hese pressures created intense competition, breaking down community and the connection to nature that had been the cornerstone of Ladakhi culture for centuries. This was Ladakh’s introduction to globalization. [8]

Returning to the topic of sweatshops in general, it should now be clear that we are not dealing with a situation where the word “voluntary” makes sense as soon as we contextualize what actually happens. Desperate people, people made desperate by institutions that work hand in hand with business, are funneled into exploitative and dangerous labor, often under geopolitical conditions that make a mockery even of washed out concepts of representative democracy. The result is that groups of people are played out against each other across regions, and thus it is incorrect to simply say that the workers in the west benefit – often they lose their own jobs, security or autonomy in the process of globalization. It is also wrong to put the blame on the plate of consumers. Not only is it extremely hard for people to even know what layers of abuse and exploitation hide behind the commodities as they appear to them in the stores, but the entire purpose of this anonymous market of commodities is precisely to decouple the social relations of producers and consumers.

Very few people, if put in directly social relationships with others, would even think of submitting their peers to these levels of abuse just to get a shirt or some consumer good – never mind that without the backing of a strong coercive force, they wouldn’t have the power to do it. But from the vantage point of each individual actor in this individualized yet global setting – consumer, producer, distributor, worker – they are all doing what the system presents as their best option. This is often mistaken for a reflection of some sort of inevitable human nature, or an expression of self-interest, when it is just the result of people choosing between sets of rigged options. It is a systemic issue, that needs addressing beyond consumer boycotts, even if such boycotts and particular incidents where abuse is laid bare can be used as focal points of organizing resistance. What is needed, is thus solidarity with the exploited workers, as their cause is also ours, and only together can we overcome the real causes of our problems.

In summary, what can be said about the discussion concerning sweatshops is quite simple. When put in its proper context, saying that sweatshop work is the best option available for all these people around the world is not a successful defense of sweatshops, but rather a devastating critique of the present system.








[8] The Economics of Happiness (2011, Grolick, Page, Norberg-Hodge)

Swedish Group Performs Open Rescue Campaign

It’s a dark night in mid-August, and the clock is nearing 3am. A small group of people huddles together in a spot of overgrown vegetation, just outside an industrial farming facility where hundreds, if not thousands, of pigs are held captive. These pigs live out miserable and short lives at the end of which awaits a sorry fate consisting of becoming food on the plates of those who value their arbitrary taste preferences over the lives and suffering of sentient beings.

It is the first direct action of this type for several members of the group, and nerves are running high. They’ve seen cars come and go near the facility. And was that voices in the distance? Finally, after making sure everything seems calm and quiet, the moment has come, and it is time to enter in order to save some of the individuals inside. The group leaves the safety of the forest line and hurries across the open yard towards the entrance to the facility. As they open the unlocked door, they realize that someone is already inside. Panicked, the activists dash back to safety, and curse the turn of events. No animals will be saved tonight. Or will they? Where do we go from here?

This is a relatively accurate re-imagining of an open rescue performed by the Swedish direct action group Tomma Burar (Empty Cages), one of three such rescues performed during their high profile August campaign in which they hit three sites, liberating selected animals from the cruel conditions prevailing in industrial animal farms. They had been planning the campaign for a long time, and thought out what they believed would be the best tactics and best strategy for their specific conditions.

Rather than conforming to the stereotypical demographic of naive teenagers often spouted by media, commercial interests or politicians, these were people of various ages and from various backgrounds, some of them parents, some veteran activists while some participated in this type of action for the very first time. As such, certain options were off the table. A full blown rescue, while hitting the factory farm hard financially, would at the same time pose several problems. Chief amongst them, was that these activists had families, and couldn’t afford to leave them behind, spending time in prison.

They had children and loved ones to care for, and had to strike a balance between benefits for the animal liberation movement and personal consequences. Usually this is where activists often would drop out, and where everyday lives lure those in theory opposing many aspects of the status quo to lull into a sort of slumber, pacified by the hardships and realities of our society. And it is indeed hard to blame people for not doing more, as they try to stay afloat amidst financial, social and political hardship. But these activist wouldn’t have any of that, and thus the idea of open rescue.

Back in the safety of the vegetation, the group is shaken and uncertain of what to do. Months of planning, and now this setback at the first step of their campaign. But not everything is lost. In their reconnaissance operations, they have pinpointed a backup location. A plan B. But the safety of the night will soon break into the exposing light of dawn, and the later in the night it gets, the bigger the risk that personnel will be present at the site.

Besides, the secondary location is not as well scouted as the primary one. Is it worth the risk? The activists consult with their off-site member that is on stand-by back at home. Together they iron out how to get to the second location, and the group makes a consensus decision to carry on. There’s no time to be afraid or get caught up second guessing oneself, it is time to act.

Open rescue is a type of rescue in which the activists are open with both their identities and their actions. It means that they will certainly have to answer for what they do to those who uphold laws, but it also means a great chance at publicity, and a platform to discuss animal rights and animal liberation. For this purpose, the group chooses to perform the rescues as partially symbolic actions, for which the legal ramifications will not include prison. Throughout the course of August, they liberate two pigs, eight hens and one salmon.

The animals are relocated to loving homes (well, the salmon is in the open waters, which is probably as homely as it gets) where they can live in natural and non-oppressive environments. The activists contact authorities and media and inform them about the actions they have performed. They also leave a jar of cookies and a signed letter at the sites where they liberate animals, explaining their actions. They take pictures, record sound, and record video, before, during and after the rescues, and have turned it all into documentaries and informational material on their website where people can hear their thoughts, see their actions and judge the results for themselves.

As they performed further rescues, the media attention picked up, and the activists got recognition on national level. They managed to get statements published in a multitude of papers, and garnered the support of thousands of people, dozens of whom even contacted the group and were eager to join into similar operations.

Some radical voices, on the other hand, criticized the group’s “tame” approach and friendly style of communication. But the effort the group put into this image is probably the key element of the broad popularity of their actions. The group contacted experts for consultation regarding how to best transport and feed the animals, wore protective clothing during all rescues, and generally made sure that derailing the debate with dishonest pseudo-concerns wasn’t viable, and that critics had to face on explain that the lives and well-being of these rescued individuals were not a priority compared to property rights.

This can be a valuable lesson to activists of all stripes. Just because we’re radical, we don’t have to treat those we oppose as bad as possible or profile ourselves with the most vulgar and polarizing rhetoric possible. Sometimes, we need to break things or violently defend ourselves. But other times, a friendly approach can be the most disarming thing in the world.

It feels like the clock is racing as the activists approach the second site. It will soon get bright, and as the group surveys the perimeter, they confirm that this facility is locked, and they will need to break open the front door. They proceed with their plan, get into the facility, select two pigs, and carry them to the car which they have prepared for the journey to safety.

As the activists leave the facility, it is already dawning, and they hurry into the car and drive off. The tension built up throughout the night’s events finally subsides, and some of the members of the group break into tears. The surreal circumstances of the rescue clash with everyday reality, driving a car down a countryside road seeing the two animals sleeping tightly in the back.

Even though the activists of Tomma Burar do not espouse any specific political ideas or principles other than their veganism and animal liberation sentiments, it is easy to extrapolate their actions and their thoughts to a broader context. By taking action into their own hands, and disregarding arbitrary laws, they question the very foundation of present day society. A foundation which consists of multiple layers of domination and oppression, which we can reject and act out against in a way that suits our own situation.

By being open with their identities, these activists became very relatable, with all their thoughts, fears, strengths and weaknesses, and it is easy to realize that they are not very different from anyone else. We can all let ourselves be inspired and take this with us as we envision the actions we can take ourselves, in our lives, to challenge the oppressive institutions that we are stuck with for now. At some point, all those small ripples will become a storm again, and through our actions we’re all potential links in the chain that will lead up to it.

As the early morning light paints the surrounding rural landscape in different shades of green, the activists reach the location of the new home for the two liberated pigs. One of the group’s members reflects on the night’s events:

-Watching them stroll around here, with grass under their feet, curious and playful, one single thought strikes me. How can anyone think we’ve done the wrong thing? It is absurd. We haven’t stolen anything. We have liberated two individuals.

The two young pigs grunt, as to confirm the statement, while they busily forage the surrounding grass for food and keenly explore their new surroundings. They sure enjoy themselves, but it is hard to tell if they know just how lucky they are. Back at the factory, vast amounts of their former companions will never experience anything other than crowded concrete floored confinements, with no light but instead a premature death down the tunnel.

As the activist group says it themselves, in one of their videos: Rescued animals are ambassadors for those left behind.

English website of the Swedish direct action group Tomma Burar
Vegan podcasts by members of the direct action group Tomma Burar, outlining their August campaign (in Swedish only).