Book review: Clean clothes. A global movement to end sweatshops by Liesbeth Sluiter

In 1850 Christian Socialist Charles Kingsley penned the aptly-titled pamphlet Cheap Clothes and Nasty about the "sweating system" in Londons clothing trade.


Poverty wages, dangerous working conditions, long hours, insecure work, child labour and minimal labour rights. Over 150 years later, many of the inhumane conditions Kingsley drew attention to in Victorian England still exist, albeit in the developing world, far away from the incessant ringing of the tills on our high streets.

Since 1989 the Clean Clothes Campaign (CCC) has been working  to improve the wages and conditions of sweatshop workers in countries as diverse as
Poland, Indonesia, Cambodia and Madagascar. Originally established in the Netherlands to protest the poor working conditions of those who made clothes for the Dutch retail giant C&A, today the CCC has campaigns in twelve European countries, each made up of an alliance of trade unions, NGOs and womens groups. Importantly, just as women make up around 85 percent of the approximately 40 million workers in the global clothing industry, women make up the majority of CCC activists..


Liesbeth Sluiter’s Clean Clothes is a detailed history of the CCC, based on interviews, archival material, company documents, newspapers and eyewitness reports. Sluiter, a Dutch freelance journalist, argues that the garment industry is "like water" as it heads "for the lowest level – of both wages and worker organisation." She explains that whenever workers have succeeded in "organising themselves and in raising wages and working conditions, the industry packed and moved on, in search of cheaper production sites."


In the West the issue is often dismissed as the sole concern of bleeding-heart liberals. However, Sluiter returns again and again to the resistance of those working in the sweatshops themselves. For example, in protest against starvation wages and repression of trade unions, Bangladeshi workers set 200 of their own factories on fire in 2006. Six years earlier Thai activists ambushed golfer Tiger Woods, telling him that his five-year sponsorship deal with Nike equalled the income of a Thai shoestitcher working for 72,000 years on end.


A slim volume, Clean Clothes is often heavy going, with each page filled with abbreviations and very dry, detailed discussions of the legal aspects of the garment industry. Best viewed as an activists or union organisers handbook, those with a real passion for, and deep knowledge of, the subject will get the most out of the book.


There is no doubt, as Sluiter argues, the anti-sweatshop movement has achieved much in a short period, from heightening consumer awareness of the conditions of the workers who make their clothes to limited improvements in the working conditions of many workers. There is much to do, though. Only this month War on Want pointed out that Primarks clothes continue to be made by Bangladeshi workers receiving just £20 a month – less than half a living wage – in dire conditions.


With the transnational clothing companies employing huge public relations departments to defend their actions and muddy an already complex issue, Sluiters book, although something of a chore, is nevertheless an important document in the perpetual struggle for workers rights across the globe.


Clean clothes. A global movement to end sweatshops is published by Pluto Press, priced £12.99.


*Ian Sinclair is a freelance writer based in London, UK. [email protected].


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