How can the music community work in solidarity with garment workers around the world? According to Musicians Against Sweat Shops (MASS) — an initiative of musicians, anti-sweatshop activists and sweatshop-free companies, buying apparel from independent trade unionized factories and worker-owned cooperative factories creates a demand for both sweatshop-free clothing and better jobs in the garment industry. It takes consumers in the North standing in solidarity with workers in the South to show companies that they can no longer scour the globe for cheap labor.
Sweatshops are commonly defined as places where workers are subject to extreme exploitation, the absence of a living wage or benefits, poor working conditions and arbitrary discipline such as verbal or physical abuse. Unfortunately, there is no legal definition of a sweatshop and, consequently, no definition of what “sweat-free” entails. American Apparel — a clothing manufacturer and distributor based in Los Angeles — is taking advantage of this loop-hole, claiming to be a “sweat-free” company.
Musicians Against SweatShops firmly believes that freedom of association and respect towards women are fundamental standards that a true “sweat-free” company should abide by. Unfortunately, questions surrounding anti-union activity by and sexual harassment lawsuits against American Apparel result in additional questioning of AAs respect for workers’ rights.
Musicians Against SweatShops stands in solidarity with workers and supports their struggles. Because of this, MASS believes that American Apparel’s advertising flies in the face of worker empowerment and, more specifically, working women. MASS’ National Coordinator Trina Tocco states that “if American Apparel is going to continue to be a self described sweatshop-free company, then AA should absolutely reevaluate their advertising strategy. With young women being the prominent group that suffer in sweatshops, one would think that American Apparel would pay particular attention to the portrayal of young women in their advertising.” American Apparel is blatantly using sex appeal to sell their product at the expense of working women who have fought for years to gain respect in the workplace.
Many people believe American Apparel is not a sweatshop, including Musicians Against SweatShops. However, American Apparel does not deserve constant praise for its “sweatshop free” designation. There is a distinction between those companies that completely disregard workers’ rights and those, like American Apparel, that have made headway (i.e. paying a living wage); but that does not make the latter ideal. Until American Apparel allows for a democratic representation of workers in its Los Angeles factories, the anti-sweatshop community actively refuses to acknowledge the company as sweatshop-free.
Targeting communities to simply consume “more ethical” products will not eliminate sweatshops. Systematic exploitation, outsourcing and sexual harassment are clearly symptoms of global capitalism. The anti-sweatshop movement is often criticized as working within a such a system, and rightly so. The movement points a finger at corporations instead of capitalism. However, for the thousands of garment workers depending on these factory jobs, do we tell them to wait for capitalism to fall? Or do we act in solidarity, supporting their right for better working conditions?
Musicians Against Sweat Shops empowers workers by specifically targeting the music merchandising scene to source their apparel from sweat-free suppliers. By utilizing for more information on the cultural influence of musicians, MASS educates and organizes people to support companies that support workers’ rights. And because musicians buy their gear wholesale — versus individuals buying a single t-shirt, changing musicians’ consumer patterns creates an economically feasible sweat-free demand. MASS also understands the reality of targeting a community that already shells out a hefty penny for their beloved concert t-shirt. So why not spend the extra two bucks to support garment workers?
Because of issues surrounding sweat-free marketing, it is important to learn more about what is behind a company’s tagline. Some companies and product lines that are represented by independent trade unions or worker-owned cooperatives include No Sweat Apparel, Just Garments, Justice Clothing, Union Wear, Union Line/Graybear, Nueva Vida, Ethical Threads and Windjammer. Musicians Against SweatShops — currently organized on a national level — is proud to give birth to its first local chapter in the Bay Area. BAMASS (Bay Area MASS) is looking for folks to help write grants, recruit bands, create educational workshops and research and run campaigns targeting local merchandise companies. MASS is also planning a benefit in May for Just Garments — a worker-owned cooperative factory in El Salvador. If you’re not in the Bay Area, start your own MASS network. For more information, check out www.musiciansagainstsweatshops.org or email firstname.lastname@example.org.