December 23, 2004

Commentary

This holiday season, give gifts that are sweatshop free

By Ana Perez

With the holiday shopping season in high gear, we need to be aware that the great bargain gifts we seek may well be responsible for some of the misery in the developing world.

For many garment industry workers in places like Guatemala, for example, the season of gift-giving usually means 16-hour workdays, no bathroom breaks and an occasional slap in the face to increase production.

I interviewed a young maquiladora worker at a clothing assembly plant offshore in Guatemala. The 13-year-old child worker explained how the factory manager would occasionally hit her when she did not do her work correctly. “It does not hurt that much,” she said, “but it is embarrassing.”

For me, the most shameful part of the experience was when I asked her to tell me the name of the company whose labels were put on the clothes she made. I was wearing at least three items of clothing made by that very same company.

This young girl had left her town in the northern mountain area of Guatemala and crammed into an uncle’s two-room mud house in El Tejar, one of the country’s free-trade zones. Like many of her co-workers, she came to the factory to help her family survive.

Many of the young girls and women I spoke with told me that factory managers liked to hire young girls because they rarely demand higher wages or attempt to unionize. Also, since they often do not have children, absenteeism is less of an issue.

The women in this factory dreaded the Christmas season because that is when they were forced to work around the clock.

While they often have no choice, we as U.S. consumers do.

With every dollar we spend, we can create better working conditions for these women and workers like them.

U.S. consumers can purchase goods from workers who either own the factories in which they work (worker-owned cooperatives) or have organized themselves into democratic unions.

We should let corporations and retailers know that we want to free ourselves of sweatshop-made products.

We can buy fair-trade products where workers get a decent wage for their efforts.

Many fair-trade organizations have online stores that offer a wide variety of products — from coffee and chocolate to tennis shoes that are sweat free.

In addition to individual purchases, there is a nationwide effort to ensure that our city governments purchase only sweatshop-free goods and services. (More information can be found at www.sweatfree.org.)

We can give gifts that truly bring joy — not just to the person receiving them, but also to the people making them.

Ana Perez is director of Global Exchange’s Cuba program. Global Exchange is an international human rights group based in San Francisco (www.globalexchange.org). She can be reached at pmproj@progressive.org.

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