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Sweatshop Watch
History and Background

Founded in 1995, Sweatshop Watch is a coalition of over 30 labor, community, civil rights, immigrant rights, women''''s, religious and student organizations, and many individuals, committed to eliminating the exploitation that occurs in sweatshops. Sweatshop Watch serves low-wage workers nationally and globally, with a focus on garment workers in California. We believe that workers should earn a living wage in a safe, decent work environment, and that those responsible for the exploitation of sweatshop workers must be held accountable. The workers who labor in sweatshops are our driving force. Our decisions, projects, and organizing efforts are informed by their voices,their needs, and their life experiences.


Many of the member organizations in Sweatshop Watch first came together as the Coalition to Eliminate Sweatshop Conditions in the early 90s. This informal coalition primarily worked for corporate accountability in the garment industry. As garment manufacturers and retailers created more complex subcontracting chains to shield themselves from responsibility for sweatshop conditions, workers and advocates realized that we must hold them directly responsible for the abusive conditions they perpetuate.

In 1990, 1992 and 1994, the coalition worked to pass a sweatshop reform bill in California, which would have held garment manufacturers legally responsible for the conditions of the workers who sew their clothes. This concept is also known as "joint liability," and the reform bill would have made garment manufacturers joint employers with the shops they contract with to sew their clothes. Although the bills passed the state legislature, they were vetoed by the Governor each time. However, as you read on, you''''ll see that in 1999 Sweatshop Watch was successful in passing a sweatshop reform bill that holds garment manufacturers responsible for workers'''' minimum wage and overtime pay.

In August 1995, after the discovery of the infamous El Monte, California sweatshop -- where 72 Thai immigrant workers were forced to sew clothes behind razor wire and armed guards -- the same organizations formed Sweatshop Watch to coordinate efforts to help the El Monte workers. In coalition with many community organizations including the Asian Pacific American Legal Center and the Thai Community Development Center, we worked to release the workers from INS detention and get them housing, food and medical care. Then we helped them to recover unpaid wages, overtime compensation and damages for civil rights violations. Building public support for the workers through our first campaign, the Retailer Accountability Campaign, we pressured retailers who sold clothes sewn by the El Monte workers through public demonstrations and letter-writing campaigns. This support was critical in winning $4 million from retailers and manufacturers for back wages and redress. Today, many of the El Monte workers continue to work in the garment industry, although they are now aware of their rights and are actively educating other workers as well as policy makers and the public.

1995: Sweatshop Watch and the Korean Immigrant Workers Advocates launched the Retailer Accountability Campaign with Thai and Latino garment workers against retailers who received and sold clothes sewn at the El Monte slave sweatshop. Through public demonstrations and letter-writing campaigns, Sweatshop Watch was able to help the El Monte workers in their case for back wages and redress and also build public support for corporate accountability in the garment industry.

1996: Sweatshop Watch joined with organized labor, community and women''''s organizations, and religious leaders in gathering signatures to qualify a ballot measure to raise the minimum wage in California. Sweatshop Watch was among the top ten groups to bring in signatures. In November, Californians voted to increase the minimum wage from $4.25 per hour to $5.75.

Sweatshop Watch premiered its Faces Behind the Labels photo exhibit in San Francisco. Faces Behind the Labels is an educational photo exhibit about garment workers -- the people behind the brand-name designer labels so many of us wear.

1997: Sweatshop Watch collaborated with UNITE! to pass a ''''no sweat'''' public purchasing resolution in San Francisco, which prohibits the city from purchasing goods made under sweatshop conditions.

Sweatshop Watch began expanding its work nationally and internationally by engaging in the debate on codes of conduct and monitoring. Sweatshop Watch issued a critique of the White House Apparel Industry Partnership (now the Fair Labor Association) and partnered with Working Assets to generate 32,000 letters and calls to the Partnership''''s Co-Chair Liz Claiborne, demanding that the Partnership include a living wage in its Code of Conduct.

1998: Sweatshop Watch produced our 1998 Garment Workers Calendar, an inspiring collection of black and white photographs of garment workers at work and on the picket line and with historical dates in the garment industry.

Sweatshop Watch hosted the Living Wage Working Summit which brought together over 50 participants from the U.S., Canada, Mexico, El Salvador, Nicaragua, the Dominican Republic, Hong Kong and the Netherlands. The summit developed a draft formula for a living wage and popularized the demand for a living wage in the anti-sweatshop movement.

Sweatshop Watch co-convened a coalition of students, faculty, staff and community members to strengthen the University of California''''s Code of Conduct for Trademark Licensees, and began supporting the growing student movement against sweatshops. In collaboration with Global Exchange, Sweatshop Watch developed a model Code of Conduct for University Trademark Licensees, which will ensure that apparel bearing the university logo is made under humane conditions. The following year, we participated in the founding of the Workers Rights Consortium.

1999: Sweatshop Watch won the passage of a sweatshop reform bill for California''''s 120,000 garment workers, Assembly Bill 633 (Steinberg, Hayden). Under the new law, which is the toughest corporate accountability law of its kind in the country, garment manufacturers must ensure that workers who sew their clothes are paid minimum wage and overtime. This new tool will help the state''''s garment workers collect an estimated $80 million in unpaid wages each year. This important victory was accomplished with many partners, including the Asian Law Caucus, the California Labor Federation AFL-CIO, the Asian Pacific American Legal Center, UNITE! and Equal Rights Advocates.

Former and current garment workers, together with Sweatshop Watch, the Asian Law Caucus, Global Exchange and UNITE!, filed three separate lawsuits against top U.S. clothing companies to clean up the rampant sweatshop abuses in Saipan, a U.S. territory in the South Pacific. By year''''s end, several companies had settled the lawsuits, agreeing to an independent monitoring program to prevent against future abuses and to payments to workers. The lawsuits continue against the remaining companies.

2000: With the support of Sweatshop Watch, eight Los Angeles garment workers who sewed university gear under sweatshop conditions won justice. Sewing jackets for USC, UCLA, Indiana, Michigan, Wisconsin, Florida, and others, the workers labored 10-12 hours a day, seven days a week and received sub-minimum wages, often without overtime pay. They faced inhumane treatment, including verbal abuse and subjection to racial slurs, and two were illegally fired for speaking out about sweatshop conditions. Sweatshop Watch mobilized student, alumni and public support for the workers and demanded that the universities whose goods they sewed live up to their codes of conduct. Within a few months, the workers'''' former sweatshop employer agreed to settle the case, paying the workers back wages and compensating the two who were fired.

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