History of the Worker Rights Consortium
The story of the Worker Rights Consortium begins with the rise of neo-liberal globalisation in the 1980s. From the 1960s onwards, corporations started to relocate their factories to the Global South.
Before this period, consumers were often located in the same countries as the factories that produced their clothes. Workers were often unionised and had rights recognised in law by most states.
Across the world, governments decided they wanted free trade. They wanted to make capitalism more global than ever, by bringing down tariffs and encouraging competition between corporations. This resulted in longer supply chains. Consumers no longer knew where their products came from. Companies were able to get up and move more easily, so workers were afraid and accepted fewer rights.
The real cost of this economic project was human: globalisation meant the rise of sweatshops. Workers, mostly women, found themselves working more than 12 hour days without breaks; they received poverty pay and suffered bullying, union-busting and sexual harassment. Brands were able to force suppliers to lower their prices, which meant lower wages and worse working conditions. If suppliers didn’t accept these measures, the brands would relocate their production, devastating local economies.
This Prezi gives more information about sweatshop conditions:
In the 1990s, students, NGOs and unions started campaigning against sweatshops. Workers took to the streets and went on strike for better conditions. Students began to take direct action and set up activist projects to stop the use of sweatshops.
Campuses all over the world were taken over by students acting in solidarity with garment workers and other workers producing in sweatshop conditions. As more and more appalling conditions and world leaders refused to listen, young activists escalated their actions and demands.
This culminated in Seattle in 1999, when protesters shut down a conference of the World Trade Organisation, arguing that the WTO worked in the interests of rich countries and corporations. Leaders from Africa, Asia and South America said they would no longer accept the terms of globalisation that North American and European governments were trying to impose on them.
However, while students had a great idea of what they didn’t want, they were having trouble finding a simple demand they could place on the powerful. They had brilliant ideals and plans for a better society, but needed stepping stones to achieve that. This is where the Worker Rights Consortium becomes so important.
The Worker Rights Consortium was set up in 2000. It was organised by United Students Against Sweatshop as a starting point for addressing their concerns. There was clearly a need for the Worker Rights Consortium: corporations were beginning to respond to protesters’ concerns, but not in the way they’d hoped. Big brands spent millions putting out glossy brochures telling consumers just how ethical they were, but kept paying poverty wages, exploiting workers and destroying livelihoods.
The WRC posed an alternative as a transparent, accountable and worker-led monitoring body. It provided students with a real opportunity to challenge corporations and demand better conditions. For this reason, it’s so important we get our universities to join the Worker Rights Consortium
The first university to affiliate was the University of Wisconsin-Madison. To take this first step, over 150 students occupied their Principal’s office to get a meeting. 54 were arrested. But the university gave in and joined. Over 150 American universities followed suit over the next decade, including the entire Ivy League. There are now hundreds of affiliated universities across the USA, UK and Canada.
Image © Ga Chun Yau Photography
In Summer 2009, the People & Planet network voted for the Buy Right campaign. This includes getting their universities to affiliate to the Worker Rights Consortium. This means that staff, resources and energy will go into making sure that every UK university joins the WRC by 2015. It also means that membership of the Worker Rights Consortium is worth points in People & Planet’s Green League, which is informed by student views. It means students on over 100 campuses across the UK have now joined the global struggle for workers’ rights.
So far, we’ve seen naked actions at Durham, Edinburgh and UEA. We’ve seen visual petitions at Chester, Swansea and Manchester Metropolitan. And there have been “knit-ins” at Cardiff and Birmingham. Students at over 60 universities have joined the campaign since 2009.
2011 was called the year of protest. Tyrants were toppled all over the world and citizens started to hold corporations to account.
Little surprise then that this was also the year this campaign really took off. In summer 2011, the National Union of Students Services Limited, which buys garments for nearly 220 students’ unions, voted to join the Worker Rights Consortium. Sheffield became the first UK university to join, closely followed by several more. See the list of both US and UK affiliates.
The coming year is yet to be written. Already, we know that Sussex and Bristol have joined the Worker Rights Consortium) and even more universities are following suit. The only way to stop sweatshops is to join the movement for global justice. Get involved in your People & Planet group and start the Buy Right campaign at your university.
Help us write history. Get in touch.