Document Type

Article

Publication Title

Harvard Civil Rights-Civil Liberties Law Review

Publication Date

1996

Abstract

Some observers would like to explain away sweatshops as immigrants exploiting other immigrants, as "cultural, or as the importation of a form of exploitation that normally does not happen here but occurs elsewhere, in the "Third World." While the public was shocked by the discovery at El Monte, garment workers and garment worker advocates have for years been describing abuses in the garment industry and have ascribed responsibility for such abuses to manufacturers and retailers who control the industry. Sweatshops, like the one in El Monte, are a home-grown problem with peculiarly American roots. Since the inception of the garment industry, U.S. retailers and manufacturers have scoured the United States and the rest of the globe for the cheapest and most malleable labor-predominantly female, low-skilled, and disempowered-in order to squeeze out as much profit as possible for themselves. Along with this globalization, the process of subcontracting, whereby manufacturers contract out cutting and sewing to contractors to avoid being considered the "employer" of the workers, has made it extremely difficult for garment workers in the United States to assert their rights under domestic law. This Article examines the challenges garment workers in the United States face in asserting their rights in the global economy and investigates how transnational advocacy can be deployed to compensate for the inability of U.S. labor laws to respond to problems with international dimensions. Using a purely domestic U.S. legal framework, advocates can attack the problem of transnational corporations' (TNCs) subcontracting in the United States. Such efforts, however, will have limited effect because of the global nature of the garment industry. Most efforts to change the structure of the garment industry have occurred within the limitations of U.S. law, even while there has been a predominant failure of the U.S. legal system effectively to utilize a human rights framework. While the nation-state has traditionally been viewed as the locus for the development and enforcement of rights-creating norms, it cannot adequately respond to all of the dynamics that now arise from markets that cut across borders. Violation of workers' rights on the global assembly line calls for strategies that are transnational, and this Article highlights past successes and suggestions in this vein. Because of the difficulty of restraining TNCs in a global economy, no strategy used in isolation will be successful. We present here alternative strategies that can be used in multiple and flexible ways in the struggle for human rights.