Would you rather... go naked, or wear sweatshop clothes?

sweatshop protest
SPEAK has campaigned against injustices in the garment industry since the beginning in 1998. It's People & Planet's Week of Action against sweatshops at the end of this month - how are you going to get involved?


As you might have seen on your own campuses, student campaigners have recently been shedding their layers to draw attention to injustice in the garment industry. Here's why...

The bad news

The UK Higer Education seector spends about £8bn a year on merchandise and materials - and not just clothing, but computers, phones, stationary and furniture. Often these goods are sourced from sweatshops. As People & Planet describe in their Buy Right Action Guide, "Sweatshop workers are mostly women, earning less than 60p a day and forced to work long hours in hot, dangerous conditions. Physical and sexual abuse are not uncommon. Many women are forced to have pregnancy tests, then fired if found to be pregnant".

The good news

In 2000 a group of American students set up the Worker Rights Consortium (WRC), an independent factory monitor that does investigations into sweatshop conditions at specific sites and publishes the results online. The WRC listen to ordinary workers, and are unswayed by the 'greenwash' bias of Corporate Social Responsibility reports the many companies now produce.

The WRC can help us overcome unjust practices in the manufacture of our possesions by basically acting as a spotlight on the supply chain trail from faraway garment worker to university shop shelf. As the aformentioned Guide explains, "When universities and unions affiliate to the WRC, corporations that supply them can't any longer deny knowledge of the factories that make their clothing. They have to declare the locations of all their factories, and these are published on the WRC website". A coalition of affiliated universities can then challenge the respective company and demand that their practices change - this has had proven results here and here. (and hopefully here soon, too!)

The campaign so far

The following UK Universities have now affiliated to the WRC:

  • University of Bristol
  • University of Cardiff
  • University of Edinburgh
  • Loughborough University
  • Oxford Brookes University
  • University of Sheffield
  • University of Sussex

All of these campaign successes have happened in the past 12 months, simply by students self-organising to put pressure on their university administration. Your university not on this list? You can do it too!

Ways to be involved

  1. See what's already happening on your campus - for example, is there a People & Planet group, and if so, what campaign progress is there?
  2. Get in touch with your university - the students' union, the Procurement Manager, the Vice Chancellor, whoever will listen..!
  3. Rally support - start building a petition, or a Facebook page
  4. Host an event during the Week of Action (26th Nov - 2nd Dec) to get some press coverage and raise awareness. For example, a naked flashmob like the one demonstrated above, or this idea developed out of a Soundcheck 2011 activity:

Organise a Prayer for Sweatshops session

What about organising a session to pray for those working in the horrendous garment industry? You could do it for an hour at a campus stall, or for an evening or even a whole night maybe! At Soundcheck 2011, we each took a piar of scissors are cut out the labels from the clothes we were wearing as an act of repentance for our own complicity - you could even encourage passers-by to do so, and then safety-pin them onto yourself prominently to draw attention to the injustice. You could also try to get your hands on a sewing machine (or knitting needles, anything!), fabrics, threads and set up a small presentation to reflect upon"