Unionize International – Bust the Brands Where they Manufacture

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Factory laborers within the Cavite Export Processing Zone (CEPZ) in the Philippines have an ally in the fight for the protection of their labor rights. The Workers Assistance Center (WAC) stands outside of the walls of the Special  Economic Zone. I learned about this battleground of labor and capitalist in Naomi Klein’s No Logo released in 2000. She brings the narrative to the CEPZ after  leading the reader through the change of economic focus of international corporations’ operations from manufacturing to brandmaking. The WAC provides training and support to the laborers tasked with producing the products that the major brands deem as secondary to image.

The book illustrates the emotions of the laborers as they discover the thousands of percent markups brands place on the prices of the shoes and clothing they produce at tens-of-cents on the item. The WAC encourages the laborers to unionize and they request help in identifying which brands are produced in which factories.

The organization has been active in the Philippines for over 20 years. Klein wrote about their operations in their first 5 years of existence. She showed the Center’s organizers reaching the laborers as they left the guarded export processing zone through security checkpoints at which they were searched. She described them going to the workers’ dormitories with pamphlets and being received nervously by teenage girls, rightly fearful for the potential repercussions for associating with the organizers. She described the workshops they provided at the center to teach the laborers about their right to organize unions and the attendants, exhausted from their jobs with the potential of forced and uncompensated overtime.

Her descriptions draw a suppressed, paranoid, uninformed labor force. A press release on the website from 2016 shows that although they’re still fighting the battle they have a deeper well to pull their opposition from. The website displays several victories including the formation of the Solidarity of Cavite Workers and a collective bargaining agreement won in 2015. The video of an action below wouldn’t be out of place as a mild-mannered anti-corporate action in an American mall. It is of a cohort of women in red shirts, dancing in unison behind a sign reading in English “One Billion Rising”. The women are celebrating the collective bargaining agreement and their first negotiated holiday on March 8, International Women’s Day.

The CEPZ is a growing manufacturing zone, among many Internationally, for corporations to hide the human costs of their production from the consumers who buy their products. It married well with the corporate prerogative to cut manufacturing costs and divert money to their branding efforts. With the move away from the production the corporations stripped their assets of manufacturing facilities, outsourced their production and labor, and focused on building their profit-making machine based on the socially constructed emotions and affection that they could draw to their names and images with marketing.

This left the manufacturing to contracted factories whose main value to the brands was producing the product cheaply. They situated themselves in countries with already-low minimum wages, they cozied up to governments and lobbied for special tax statuses, and they exploited their hosts’ citizens. When governments were successfully urged to demand the manufacturers treat their labor forces well the factories would leave. If the friendly tax deals expired the companies would leave. Horror stories emerged of laborers being assaulted, union organizers being found dead, women inducing miscarriages to get around a management that would fire them for being pregnant. Factories in the CEPZ were able to receive waivers on minimum wage laws and use local police as security for the zone and union busting forces.

The international community expressed their outrage and the brands made superficial changes to their behavior to mollify the public and stop getting caught but the behavior continued. Now the brands have been pressured to (publicize) change and to sign non-binding labor agreements and codes of conduct. The exploitation of labor by capitalists continues but victories have been won.

In the conclusion of No Logo a WAC organizer says “The more significant way to resolve these problems lies with the workers themselves, inside the factory.” This was over 15 years ago, and the signing of a collective bargaining agreement celebrated below indicates some success on that front.

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