Time for a living wage around the world
by Medea Benjamin
Global Exchange, Fall 1998
In the midst of a crushing economic crisis, Nike workers in
Indonesia now make ten cents an hour and live in dire poverty.
Dominican workers sewing pants for JC Penney make 60 cents an
hour, which is one-third of what the Dominican government says
a family needs to meet its basic needs. Chinese workers making
expensive shirts for Ralph Lauren earn 23 cents an hour to work
15 hour shifts, six days a week.
Yes, life is certainly less , expensive in China than it is
in the United States, and workers overseas are not asking for
US wages. But they are asking for wages that allow them to cover
their basic needs and live a dignified life. They don't want mere
survival wages; they want wages that will pull them out of poverty.
In an effort to come up with a common definition of a living
wage and a strategy to push the garment industry to pay decent
wages, some 50 key anti-sweatshop activists from around the world
came together in July for a conference in the San Francisco Bay
Area organized by Sweatshop Watch and Global Exchange. Participants
included workers, activists, unionists and academics from around
the U.S., as well as from China, Mexico, Central America, the
Dominican Republic, Canada and Europe.
Individual company Codes of Conduct and the code devised by
the White House Task Force on Sweatshops say that workers should
earn at least the legal minimum wage or the prevailing wage of
the industry. But in many countries, the minimum l wage is deliberately
set below subsistence by governments trying to attract foreign
investors. These rock-bottom wages force workers to add exhausting
hours of overtime in order to make ends meet.
In order to eliminate sweatshops, minimum wage or prevailing
industry wage is not enough. Companies must undertake studies
of what the cost of living is in the various places their goods
are being produced, and pay workers-for a normal work week not
exceeding 48 hours-enough to fulfill those basic needs.
A sub-group of the conference focused on developing a formula
at for calculating a living wage in any given country or region
of a country. The formula takes into account the average number
of family members in a region, the average number of adult wage
earners per family, as well as various categories of essential
expenses: housing and energy, food and potable water, clothing,
education, child care, health care and transportation. The formula
adds 10 percent for savings. The formula addresses actual take-home
pay, after deductions for taxes, social security and national
health insurance. Several conference participants plan to start
"market basket" surveys in various countries to test
the formula on the ground.
Right now, there is no company that has publicly acknowledged
its responsibility to pay workers a living wage. A subcommittee
formed at the conference will target certain companies for a high-profile
pressure campaign. Immediately following the conference, some
of the participants met with Levi Strauss and an umbrella business
organization called Business for Social Responsibility to ask
them to sponsor wage studies.
During the past school year, students on a number of campuses
negotiated with their administration to adopt codes of conduct
for licensees who act as go-betweens between the university and
businesses that produce goods with the university's logo. These
negotiations have been taking place at universities such as Duke,
Brown, Harvard and the University of California. While these codes
address issues such as child and prison labor, they do not make
companies responsible for paying a decent wage. Students at the
conference, representing not only their own schools but a newly
formed group called Students United Against Sweatshops, will return
to their universities to seek inclusion of a living wage provision
in their codes. And students on campuses which have not yet adopted
a code will now make a living wage a demand in their negotiations.
Exposes such as the one recently done by the U.S. garment union
UNITE show that Dominican workers earn a miserly 8 cents for making
university baseball caps that sell for $19.95, and this will add
fuel to the campus-based organizing effort.
Companies that cry poverty when asked to pay their workers
a living wage ought to look at management compensation as a place
to trim the fat. While U.S. CEOs make an obscene 326 times the
salary of the average U.S. factory worker, they make 27,710 times
the average Chinese or Indonesian factory worker! The inequalities
are obscene, and pointing this out to shareholders, consumers
and workers themselves will be a key component of the living wage
The conference participants recognized that in countries where
democratic, independent unions can bargain contracts, workers
will decide for themselves what wage to demand in contract negotiations,
rather than relying upon a complex algebraic formula. Moreover,
we recognize that worker empowerment, through organizing independent,
democratic unions or associations, is the most important ingredient
for eliminating sweatshops. All anti-sweatshop efforts should
therefore give support to organizing efforts by workers themselves.
In countries like China or Free Trade Zones in many regions where
workers are not able to freely stand up for their rights, consumer-based
campaigns can be a critical interim measure to advocate for decent
jobs for all garment workers.
What can you do ?
Contact Nike and ask them to pay their overseas workers a
living wage, which would be a mere $3 a day in Indonesia, Vietnam
and China-the countries where Nike makes most of its shoes. A
$9 billion-dollar company that pays athletes like Michael Jordan
millions just to wear the shoes, Nike can certainly afford to
pay the workers who make the shoes $3 a day! Call Nike at 1-800-344-6453,
then press 3, or write CEO Philip Knight at Nike, 1 Bowerman Dr.,
Beaverton, OR 97005 or contact them through their website at www.nikeworkers.com.
2017 Mission Street, Room 303, San Francisco, CA 94110
tel - 415-255-7296, fax 415-255-7498
email - firstname.lastname@example.org
web site - www. globalexchange.org