When rapper P. Diddy launched a new clothing line with the slogan “It’s not just a label, it’s a lifestyle,” it is doubtful he had Lydda Eli Gonzalez in mind. Gonzalez, a 19-year-old from Honduras, once sewed shirts for P. Diddy’s new “Sean John” label for the paltry wage of five cents a piece. Today, she will be at Yale to tell her story.
Last year, while most of us were busy studying for final exams, Gonzalez was working 12-hour shifts six days a week for Southeast Textiles — a Honduran factory producing clothing for Sean John, Old Navy and Polo Sport, among other popular companies. While many of us were catching up on sleep over summer vacation, she was enduring compulsory pregnancy tests and mandatory unpaid overtime. When we were returning to school in the fall, Gonzalez was staring at a pink slip; she and fourteen coworkers were fired from Southeast Textiles after lobbying for better working conditions. Now she is traveling the United States with two fellow maquiladora workers and Charles Kernaghan, director of the National Labor Committee.
If the 1990’s proved the decade of the depressing sweatshop expose, the past few years seem to have rendered the image of toiling maquila workers like Gonzales a virtual cliche. Most of the 200 Yalies who chanted on Beinecke Plaza against Yale’s commissioning of sweatshop labor in 2000 have since graduated; in fact, Yale’s chapter of Students Against Sweatshops is now defunct. Yet students’ commitment to fighting corporate labor exploitation could not have worn thin at a worse time. As international trade ministers prepare to converge on Miami next week to negotiate the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA), the stakes for workers like Gonzales are higher than ever.
In its current incarnation, the FTAA is structured to drastically accelerate the corporate race to the bottom across the Americas. An epic free trade treaty that simply repeats the blooper of NAFTA on a larger scale, the FTAA aims to protect investors’ “rights” while doing little to ensure basic international labor and human rights. Increased capital mobility and decreased accountability under the FTAA invites footloose industries to scour Latin America in search of cheap wages. Once new factories are secured, government regulators will likely learn to look the other way at labor abuses for the sake of keeping foreign investors content.
If Sean John hopes to profit handsomely from retailing shirts at $40 a pop in SoHo boutiques, something — or, more accurately, someone — has to give. According to the FTAA’s guidelines, that someone will always be Gonzalez, not P. Diddy. Many neoliberal economists have attempted to rationalize this choice. “Are not sweatshops better than no shops?” they ask. Some might point out that Gonzalez’s earnings at Southeastern Textiles surpassed Honduras’ prevailing 55 cents an hour minimum wage by more than 10 cents.
Yet relativism does not erase the fact that 65 cents an hour is still not a salary of survival. Nor does it mitigate the degradation Gonzalez and her coworkers face daily at Southeastern Textiles. They are often denied permission to use the bathroom, obliged to drink water that contains fecal matter, forced to withstand anti-union intimidation from managers, and the list goes on. Nor does it exonerate U.S. consumers from our duty to demand more of multinational corporations and the famous names that reap millions by endorsing them.
When Gonzalez comes to Yale for a Pierson College Master’s Tea at 4:30 today, followed by a free dinner and discussion at La Casa Cultural at 7 p.m., her entreaty for student solidarity against the FTAA should not be taken lightly. Yale students helped to start the anti-sweatshop movement in the United States and have offered a strong voice against reactionary trade policies in the past. Now we must be the keepers of the fire.
Sarah Stillman is a sophomore in Pierson College.