Časopis pro politiku a mezinárodní vztahy

Global Politics

Časopis pro politiku a mezinárodní vztahy

Connection between the anti-sweatshop movement and development theories

Sweatshops represent a serious challenge and a shameful characteristic of nowadays' global economic system and international community. Sweatshops are production factories that employ local labour for a low wage that does not satisfy basic standard of living and in which sanitation and labour standards, as well as fundamental human rights are seriously infringed. In response to dehumanizing work conditions the anti-sweatshop movement (ASM) organized itself and started with activities in order to eradicate this labour exploitation. Presented article explores the connection of the ASM with development and the theoretical connection between the ASM's activism and the existing theories of development.

In order to satisfy the needs and demands of the developed countries which bring work to developing countries (with cheap work force, poverty and loose labour and human rights regulations) the latter are often prepared to transgress all labour, social and even basic human rights and dignity in order to bring work to their countries (Snyder 2008). Workers work in unhealthy, unsafe environment, and are often deprived of sleep and mentally and physically abused (Chartier 2008). One of the core problems in fighting against sweatshops is that such corporations usually only close their factories/swe­atshops when they are confronted by workers’ demands and move them to some other developing country where labour is cheap and which is willing to accept them just like the previous was not long ago (Esbenshade 2008).

In response to dehumanizing work conditions the anti-sweatshop movement (ASM) organized itself and started with its activities in order to eradicate this labour exploitation. The ASM is certainly a social movement with many distinctive characteristics in comparison to so far known social movements which will be presented in the presented article.

Therefore, the first part of the article will present the background, characteristics and activities of the ASM in general and differences in approaches inside the movement. Based on the results of analysis of the ASM’s characte­ristics, the underlying ideas and principles the article will focus on the connection of the ASM with selected major theories of development. Comparison between the goal of the ASM and its practices and between established theories or schools of development will be made. This comparison will briefly include the modernization theory, dependency theory, sustainable and human development theories, and post-development theory in order to discover possible applicability of these established theories to the ASM. Therefore the second part of the article will analyse whether any of these theories is applicable to the study of the ASM and whether the ASM is due to its specific characteristics in better accordance with new approaches that deal with the concept of development. With analysis of primary and secondary sources and comparative analysis of theories and the movement I intend to answer the research question which leads me through the research: With which major development theory is the anti-sweatshop movement most tightly connected? In the presented article I also aim at answering connected sub-questions ‘What are the theoretical foundations of the movement (from which development theory do they stem from)?’ and ‘How is the anti-sweatshop connected with development?’


Let me start with a brief presentation and definition of the issue with which the ASM occupies itself: the sweatshops. Sweatshops can be defined as “a specific organization of work, in which fixed costs are held to a minimum by operating substandard, congested, unhealthy factories, typically overseen by a ‘sweater’ or subcontractor” (Piore 1997, 136).1 However, in general public a term sweatshop is often just loosely defined as a production company that employs low-wage workers in production factories that do not meet safety or sanitation standards and in which workers despite a great number of work hours do not earn enough for an adequate standard of living and their labour rights are not respected (Miller 2004, 323).

The issue of sweatshops and underpaid labour without any power to negotiate and advocate for their rights was present already in the late 19th century and early 20th century in Great Britain. Though, the problem was solved by the Trade Boards Act from 1909 that represents the first attempt made by the state to change practices of underpaid jobs in the Great Britain (Blackburn 1991, 43). Although this is a historical case it is still connected to the nowadays issue of sweatshops. The present issue of underpaid labour with lack of power to fight for their (internationally guaranteed) labour and human rights is mostly connected with developing and poor countries whose citizens are being used by international corporations in order to minimize production costs on the account of these workers that do not have instruments to resist to globally and systematically embedded practices.

The difference between the response to exploitive practices of that time and that of the present time is of course in the fact that in early 20th century the government was the one that interrupted the preceding policy of state’s non-interference with economic laws. Moreover, nowadays the actor that tries to improve the conditions of the underpaid workers is a global social movement (Blackburn 1991, 43). It is therefore visible that the anti-sweatshop initiative or even movement is (in other form, but still fighting for the same objective) present for centuries. However, until the 1990’s the movement did not appear on a global scale in such a form that the activists would advocate also for foreign underpaid and exploited labour and would therefore represent a new kind of social movement that tries actively to contribute to improvement of the status of these workers.

The beginning of the nowadays’ ASM is therefore based in the year 1996 when the National Labour Committee (NLC)2 brought the old problem of sweatshops to the daily public agenda and highlighted it as a major problem of the modern society (Greenhouse 1996). The issue of sweatshops gained attention and led to the establishment of the ASM after revelation of corporations like The Gap, Wal-Mart and Nike using sweatshops for their production (Mandle 2000, 95). The public disclosure gained a lot of media attention and in this manner initiated public response and increased interest in the issue of exploitation practices of the famous corporations in their sweatshops. This revelation of shameful reality of clothes-production was first made by Charles Kernaghan and ‘his’ NLC (Williams 2008, 4). What might be surprising with regard to the nowadays reality of the ASM is the fact that the beginnings of the anti-sweatshop initiative came from the government. In response to the dehumanizing and disgraceful conditions in the exposed production factories the Clinton administration in the United States (the US) proposed establishing of the Apparel Industry Partnership (AIP) which gathered together apparel corporations, non-profit organizations, and unions that formed a non-profit Fair Labor Association (FLA) which was supposed to monitor “compliance with the Workplace Code of Conduct” (Mandle 2000, 95–6).

However, this first response differs from what we nowadays witness as the ASM. Namely the FLA and AIP agreements did not satisfy the unions since the agreements gave the impression that they are just results of the corporations’ interests. The tool of monitoring that was suggested seemed like a ‘security measure’ so that the companies would be able to work untroubled by unexpected external inspections and overview (Mandle 2000, 96). It would just be an imaginary improvement, while reality of exploitation would not change. Therefore the first attempt of solving the issue of sweatshops was actually abducted by corporations that indeed used sweatshop factories.

Since this governmentally proposed response to the issue of sweatshop labour was (mis)used by companies, the students created an alternative and independent monitoring organization that included universities, independent labour rights experts and students, namely: the Worker Rights Consortium (WRC)3 (Bose 2008, 227). The WRC reacts upon complaints from workers in factories that do not respect and guarantee their rights. Of course the WRC does not have any executive powers in order to influence and change policies and practices of a company, but its response to workers’ complaints takes form of recommendations and a letter of concern in which the company is asked to provide information about the situation and is asked to cooperate with the WRC’s investi­gations (Bose 2008, 231). What needs to be emphasized is that the goal of the WRC is not to end cooperation between the purchaser (in the case of student ASM this are universities) and the production company, but this might happen if worker-conditions are not improved. At the same time, the WMD promises to reconsider the renewal of such cooperation when conditions are improved. As said, the ASM in general and the WRC in particular do not contradict the current neoliberal practices of multinational corporations that are using offshoring and outsourcing for their production. Therefore, the ASM with its activities does not want to take the jobs away from workers, but to assure them an appropriate payment and humane working conditions (Bose 2008, 232).

The student’s ASM that in the US took form of the United Students against Sweatshops (USAS),4 was practically established based on the outrageous discrepancy in the chain of production and marketing of the garment products at universities (Mandle 2000, 93). As it can be concluded from their activities the student ASM distinctive characteristic is that it focused on their close environment and channelled their energy and protest against universities and their indirect support of the sweatshop-based industry. The student ASM therefore undertook local initiative and set the aim of changing practices of institutions in their local environment that supported globally embedded exploitation practices of big corporations. They demand that workers should be guaranteed at least a minimum wage that would satisfy their basic needs and that they should be able to exercise their right to collective bargaining (Mandle 2000, 98–9).

As we can see from the development of the ASM, the movement is constituted of different actors, of the governmentally promoted AIP that itself brought together apparel corporations, non-profit organizations, and unions, to non-profit human rights organisations like the NLC and student’s gras­sroots movements like the USAS. The ASM involves also other important ‘members’ like human rights organisations, consumers and church groups, and beside college students also high school and middle-school students (Barsamian 2000 and Greenhouse 2000).

Nowadays there are also certain distinctive characteristics of the overall ASM that place the movement into the group of the so called New Social Movements (NSM) which share common characteristics of representing the increased global consciousness and effort “to make issues such as equity, dignity, well-being and sustainability as important and visible as profitability and capital accumulation” (Carty 2002, 132). These movements which resist unfair and exploitive global practices help achiev thegoals with the use of independent media and the internet. Due to new technologies and means of globally connected mass communication we are facing a change in the relationship between centres of hegemonic domination such as transnational companies (mis)using cheap labour in developing countries and between marginal (used) groups (Carty 2002, 129–30). These technological changes enable exploited and marginal groups to utilize new means of communication, warn about their issues and raise their voices. Consequently they enable them to achieve their goals of ending the exploitive labour practices and challenging the macro-level global trends (ibid.).

Strategy of NSM’s is ‘globalization from below’, which means they rely on activities of local groups and people, but on a global level with which they wish and intend to change the institutional framework of the ‘globalization from above’ (Carty 2002, 132). What is distinctive of these movements is that they aim at connecting the ‘powerless’ workers from developing countries with global actors that possess more power and influence in global economy (ibid.). Namely, the exploited workers in sweatshops resisted but did not achieve any success. Therefore, in the 1990’s as a consequence of the new technology that connected distinct parts of the globe into one global community, the international community slowly made the connection between consumerism and the production of workers in developing countries and became aware of discrepancies and unfairness of this global production line. Consequently, people and groups in the developed states started to speak in the name of these workers and advocate for the labour and even human rights they are entitled to, but which are not respected (Carty 2002, 134).

In order to characterize the ASM a bit deeper, I would like to emphasize conclusions that Carty (2002, 139–45) made in her analysis of the NSM’s and ASM. Namely, the ASMs do not encourage boycotts of companies or products, since the consumption gives workers in the developing states jobs and increases employment. The members and activists of the ASM believe that sweatshops represent a structural problem and consequently the solution to this problem is empowerment of the sweatshop workers in order to enable them to fight for better working conditions and wages by themselves (Carty 2002, 139). The goal of the ASMs is to transform the current system of production into a system free from exploitation of the cheap work-force, and not to attack on the consumption in general (Carty 2002, 145 and Bose 2008, 224).

The ASMs link local concerns with international issues and present the link between macro and micro level dynamics, and in their effort to change this exploitation they rely on use of global communication media with which they are raising global awareness and public pressure against ‘exploiters’ (Carty 2002, 132).


In the following chapter I will briefly present main development theories and their theoretical presumptions and compare them to the values and aims of the ASMs in order to establish whether any of these theories and their theoretical foundations are applicable to the ASM. What are consequent similarities or discrepancies between the established development theories and the ‘ideology’ of the ASMs that was presented in the previous chapter?

Modernization theory

According to the modernization perspective of development based on the evolutionary theory social change always moves societies from primitive to advanced level (So 1990, 33). At the same time modernization theories “help to provide a justification for the asymmetrical power relationship between ‘traditional’ and ‘modern’ societies” (So 1990, 36), which is not the objective of the ASM, since the ASMs do not aim at explaining differences and injustice, but strive for change of the current system of exploitation in production. Since the modernization theory does not deal with any kind of social movement that would aim at improving position and situation of workers in foreign countries from the developed (or in the discourse of modernization theories: ‘modern’) countries and cannot basically imagine a situation like this, and since it focuses mainly on states as actors, any evidence of any kind of connection between modernization theories of development and the ASM is not present. Moreover, social Darwinism, embedded in the modernization theories, also contributed to explanation and justification of “the transition to an intensely competitive industrial capitalism and the rise to power of rich and powerful people” (Peet and Hartwick 2009, 106). The latter is evidently in complete opposition to the principles and ideas of the ASM that does not aim to defend the power of the rich and powerful, since they are usually on the top of multinational corporations which are indeed using the practice of sweatshop labour for which the ASMs advocate for.

Dependency theory

According to the dependency theory’s basic presumptions the European and the US (Western) development was founded on the process of underdevelopment of the non-European world – making it less developed that it had been (Peet and Hartwick 2009, 166). World has become divided into European First World ‘centre’ and non-European Third World ‘peripheries’ that are in the relationship of dependency (ibid.). The advocates of dependency argue that “real development meant separating from the global capitalist system in a more autonomous economy” (Peet and Hartwick 2009, 170), and this very statement is a contradiction to the principles of the ASM. Namely, the ASM argues that relationship between companies in the West and production factories in the developing countries should not be altered or cut, since this would cause mass unemployment of workers who seem to have no other alternatives to earn money and survive. Therefore, the ASMs do not support the thesis of separating the developing, Third World countries from the global capitalist system based in the West. What is also ‘lacking’ in the ASM’s ideology is the call for a kind of socialist revolution, for which the majority of the dependency theory calls for (Peet and Hartwick 2009, 172). Instead, the ASM calls for change in practice of particular production of factories-sweatshops and does not attempt to eradicate the production relationship between multinational corporations and their production sites in the poorer, developing countries.

Sustainable development theory

Sustainable development encompasses “the development which protects the environment” and “the development which advances social justice” (Harris 2000, 5). In its gist sustainable development theory firstly advocates for sustainable development and promotes action with a view to the future generations. Thus, the official definition of sustainable development, created in the World Commission on Environment and Development’s re­port Our Common Future (1987) states: “Sustainable development is development which meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” However, an additional factor that contributed to formation of the term sustainable development was also the fact that even though the term development has been in use for decades, it has not only failed to reach environmentally-friendly progress, but it also did not achieve economic and social progress. Quite the contrary, it has created wide and still widening gaps between rich and poor nations and even between the rich and poor within particular countries.

In general, due to the fact that the theory of sustainable development also concerns with the climate and the environment, it does not to a greater extent comply with the ASM’s principles. The ASM does not build its activities and campaigns on the concern for future generations and their well-being but focuses specifically on welfare of the workers they advocate for now – on the present generation. The only connection between the ASMs ‘ideology’ and the theory of sustainable development is that guaranteeing rights for the current generation of workers can indeed make the precedence for future generations of workers in these countries and in this manner the ASM can be connected with the goals of the sustainable development, since it provides good precedence of the needed working and wage conditions and fights for labour rights that are meant to be long-lasting.

Human development theory

The human development theory according to Amartya Sen (UNDP 2011b) deals with the idea that “increasing the richness of human life rather than the wealth of the economy in which the human beings live” is of central importance for development. The idea of human development is included also in work of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) which defines human development as “an expansion of people’s freedoms and capabilities to live lives they value” and which puts in focus disadvantaged people (UNDP 2011a, 1). Before drawing any comparison between the goals and principles on which the ASM is based, six factors that are important to human development need to be explained. Namely, these factors (UNDP 2011b) are: Equity: Equal opportunities for all. Special emphasis is placed on equity of human development between men and women and various social groups. Empowerment: Freedom of the people as the subjects of development, to influence decisions that affect their lives. Cooperation: Participation and belonging to communities and groups as a means of mutual enrichment and a source of social meaning. Sustainability: Meeting the needs of today without compromising the ability of satisfying the same by future generations. Security: Exercise development opportunities freely and safely with confidence that they will not disappear suddenly in the future. Productivity: Full participation of people in the process of income generation and gainful employment.

It can definitely be claimed that the principles of the ASM are related with the factors of development that human development theory puts forward. Factors of human development like empowerment, cooperation, sustainability and productivity are certainly included also in the ASM’s agenda. Namely, empowerment in the ASM’s framework is of central importance since the ASM’s fight for the right of the sweatshop workers to negotiate and address the issue of sweatshops as a structural problem of the global system can be solved only with empowerment of now powerless workers (Carty 2002, 139). In addressing this issue the next important factor which is shared between human development theory and the ASMs is the factor of cooperation. The empowerment of workers and their ability to advocate for themselves and thus assure living wages and implementation of labour and human rights is in close connection with the principle of cooperation. Managers of sweatshops have so far successfully ignored the demands of exploited sweatshop-workers, and the factor that contributed to the successful ignorance is that the workers were not able to negotiate for wages and their rights collectively (Mandle 2000, 99). Because individual demands are easier to overlook and since the collective bargaining is “a mechanism by which workers can influence the wage they receive” the principle of cooperation between workers in collective bargaining is one of the most important goals of the ASMs, especially of the USAS (ibid.). The factor of sustainability that is present in the AMS’s agenda was already explained in the previous sub-chapter that addressed the sustainable development theory, which allows us to address the last common factor – namely the factor of productivity. As defined by the UNDP, productivity encompasses ‘gainful employment’, which is also one of the main goals of the ASM. The ASMs advocate for sweatshop workers and demand they would be guaranteed at least a minimum living wage (Mandle 2000, 98–9). Therefore, we can see common points and principles of the human development theory and the ASM’s agenda.

Another important contribution of the UNDP in the field of development that is involving addressing the issue of sweatshops and underpaid labour is also UNDP’s mainstre­aming of human development at work and “putting people at the centre of development processes as part of its advocacy, policies and economic debate” (UNDP 2011b). Thus the UNDP helps, in more institutionalised manner, in raising public awareness of the issue and creating pressure on existing corporations that still use sweatshop labour.

Post-development theory

Sachs (1992)5 summarizes the main message of post-developmentalists: “delusion and disappointment, failures and crimes have been the steady companions of development and they tell a common story: it did not work. /…/ development has become outdated.” Adherents of post-development support social change and activism and argue for it; they however do not support global movements for issues that concern local populations (Peet and Hartwick 2009, 228). Their message is instead: “Think and act locally”, since they believe that people can successfully advocate for the things they are familiar with and know them well (ibid.). Thus, post-developmentalists do not see the advantage in globalization and technological improvements that enable international communication and cooperation for a common cause. They do not in general oppose technological improvements; they merely support and promote the use of technology by social movements according to their special needs and not so much as means of globalizing local movements. Consequently, I claim that the ASM is in opposition to the kind of activism that the post-development theory proposes. Namely, the post-developmentalists oppose practices and mechanisms of development cooperation as we know and call for ‘reforming’ such development practices. Thus, also the practices of the ASM as one of the established movements that is characterized by advocating for rights of people in the ‘Third World’ inside developed states falls within the category of development cooperation that is not favoured by the post-developmentalists. In addition, with regard to the fact that the ASM has its decades long history of existence and action and the disappointing fact that despite their efforts the sweatshops still exist, the ASM’s activism can be labelled as a failure in consideration of the post-developmentalists’ message about so far existing development practices and cooperation.

A new theoretical approach?

Present section proceeds from a proposition made by Peet and Hartwick (2009). I tend to present and support the ascertainment that the ASM requires new theoretical approach with regard to development and cannot be based on the already established and well-known theories of development that were presented in previous sections. Namely, Peet and Hartwick also observe that there are changes in the social reality which were not present before and which consequently require theoretical changes. The call for social and economic changes includes demands that are in their opinion (Peet and Hartwick 2009, 288) best encompassed in the Critical modernism or Critical modernist developmentalism which “favours the views of oppressed peoples of all kinds” (Peet and Hartwick 2009, 280–1).

An important part or characteristic of the critical modernism is social movement and social action. Issues encourage people to join together in social movements with which they express opposition to the currently prevailing and established characteristics of the global system and eventually such opposition of the movement of directly affected people slowly develops into a “widespread popular opposition” (Peet and Hartwick 2009, 286). In the case of the ASM we can claim that the movement of affected people had already developed into a global movement, in which not-affected people advocate for rights of affected labour in foreign countries. As pointed out by the authors (ibid.), critical modernism joins in a common effort the ‘old’ social movements (like unions) with the ‘new’ ones, an example of which would be e. g. association of young people or students. Characteristic of such movements is that they are able to transcend the borders and turn into global movements that share a common goal, despite all the cultural, ethical, and other differences (Peet and Hartwick 2009, 287). Perfect example of such unification of ‘new’ and ‘old’ for a common goal (ending exploitation practices of sweatshop-labour) is also the ASM that combines ‘old’ unions with ‘new’ movements like the USAS.

Another reason for which I claim that critical modernism’s pre­sumptions and principles are applicable to the agenda and actions of the ASM is the understanding of the term (and the ultimate goal) of development. Namely, the critical modernism understands development as “building economic capacity so that material life can be improved” (Peet and Hartwick 2009, 290) and develops the notion of the term further: “development means channelling resources directly to poor people to enhance their productivity. It does not mean channelling even more resources to the already rich.” (Peet and Hartwick 2009, 291). Since the ASM is a social movement and not a coherent theoretical approach or a party with its programme, the ASM and smaller ASM movements inside the general one do not directly define development, but their notion of it can be seen from their actions. The ASM in general advocates for sweatshop workers, warns about inhumane treatment and exploitive practices and consequently calls for ending of such exploitation and unfair treatment of sweatshop-workers and demands at least minimum living wage and the right to collective bargaining. Taking into account the presented definition of development by the critical modernism I claim that all the presented characteristics of the ASM are indeed put into theoretical definition of development already by the human development theory (presented before) and also by the critical modernism’s de­finition of development.


The ASMs definitely represent a new phenomenon and a new approach in the development process. Consequently, there are not many common points between the characteristics of the ASM and the majority of the already well-established theories of development. I believe that the reason for this difficulty of finding common points lies in the fact that despite the ASM's more than a decade-long existence theorists did not focus on the ASM and its activities or its influence on development.

However, with development of technology and mass media communications the importance and presence of the global ASM is growing and new academic debates like e.g. the critical modernism are starting to indirectly deal also with the ASM as part of new social movements and deliberate also about its global and local influence. This leads me to the conclusion that the current ASM in general, as a social movement, disregarding its internal differences, might fit into new theories of development that will be established on the grounds of technological and media change that are so far not included in existing and analysed theories of development. Therefore, we can expect that new development approaches like the critical modernism’s ap­proach are going to focus on social movements like the ASM and their connection with development in an even greater extent.

The answer to the research question that led me through the research is that there are only few connections between the ASM and the established development theories because of their lack of focus on social movements and also due to smaller visibility of the ASM in the time period of popularity of the established theories. However, the article did show particular similarities and shared basic ideas of the ASM’s policy and activism and theoretical presumptions of established development theories, such as sustainable development and especially the human development theory. But the most visible and clear connection was between the ASM and the new approach of critical modernism. Therefore, the answer to the sub-question that was presented in the introduction is that theoretical foundations and shared principles of the ASM with development theories are to certain (already presented) extent present in theory of sustainable development and theory of human development and most certainly in the presumptions of critical modernism.

After discovering new approaches to development, new social movements and new aspects to the technologically changed reality of global world, the development of these new approaches is definitely going to focus also on the ASM and its influences on global policies of production and on local societies in developing countries. I would therefore like to summarize my ascertainment that the ASM has only recently become academically and theoretically studied as a part of a greater phenomenon of new social movements, and that developing re-considerations of the concept of development and of approaches of social movements to the issues of development are yet being established. Due to recent vast changes in technological and communication capabilities the ASM is becoming more visible and vastly active in global public life and its influence on development, understood as improvement of individuals’ economic welfare is only becoming a focus of ‘new’ theoretical considerations, as shown with the approach of critical modernism.


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  1. Piore, Michael. 1997. The Economics of the Sweatshop. New York: Verso. In Miller (2004, 323).
  2. Today known as the Institute for Global Labour and Human Rights (IGLHR 2012). Additional information about the work and activities of the IGLHR can be found at: http://www.globallabourrights.org/ (29. 11. 2012).
  3. More information on the independent monitoring organization WRC at: http://www.workersrights.org/ (29. 11. 2012).
  4. Information about USAS's past and present activities and campaigns can be found on their website: http://usas.org/ (29. 11. 2012).
  5. Sachs, Wolfgang. 1992. The Development Dictionary: A Guide to Knowledge as Power. London: Zed Books. In Peet and Hartwick (2009, 227).

Author is bachelor student of International relations at the Faculty of Social Sciences of University of Ljubljana.

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Tamara Cakic
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10. 4. 2013