Facing the heart of the issue

Kimra Mcpherson

Mexican workers don’t have a word for “sweatshops.”

But last summer, Desiree Evans saw the factories’ impact on the country firsthand.

Traveling in a group organized by United Students Against Sweatshops, the Northwestern Students Against Sweatshops founding member spent last August visiting Mexican textile workers in their workplaces and homes. The conditions she observed confirmed her notions about the horrors of sweatshop labor, she said.

“Hardly any of (the workers) were making a minimum wage in Mexico,” said Evans, a Medill sophomore. “If their job was standing up, they couldn’t sit down. A lot of them breathed chemicals without protection. A lot of them didn’t even know if they were unionized or not.”

But for the workers, the need for a living wage took precedence over the harsh working conditions, Evans said.

“The harshest reality was that (workers) still were not getting paid enough to take care of their kids, to have warm water, clean water, clothing,” she said. “Even though two parents and a child may have been working, none of them were making enough to support themselves.”

If anything, this realization of the need for a living wage made Evans more dedicated to the struggle.

“At first, I was just like, ‘I want to fight against these injustices and this economic exploitation,'” she said. “But after Mexico, I was more set in my fight.”

Evans has taken that desire and channeled it here at Northwestern to push for a living wage standard. The living wage debate made news on Northwestern’s campus last month when NSAS members camped on Library Plaza to pressure the administration into joining the Worker Rights Consortium. NU agreed to join the WRC on April 30 without accepting the optional living wage provision included in the organization’s agreement.

The living wage provision would have encouraged schools who are members of the WRC to require that companies who manufacture their apparel adopt a living wage for their employees. This wage is defined as a minimum income a family can survive on when taking into account the geographical region and the size of the worker’s family.

Evans said she and members of USAS worldwide plan to continue to push the living wage standard, though the WRC does not require member universities to accept it.

“A living wage should be the minimum wage,” she said. “It should be what people need to live, to eat, to do anything, to escape the cycle of poverty.”

Escaping that cycle, Evans said, takes education. But last year, National University in Mexico City, which once promised to remain free and open to all students, began to charge for enrollment. Without a living wage, sending children on to higher education may prove impossible for many parents, she said.

“Those kids will soon be working in the same factories, still not making enough to survive,” she said.

When Evans was in Mexico, she noticed thousands of American products on billboards, yet right below them were thousands of shantytowns that workers had little choice but to live in.

Evans said that many of the Mexican workers with whom she spoke were surprised that she and other students cared about the workers’ plight. She said the workers were amazed to see that American students were organizing “in solidarity” with their fight. Maybe this solidarity stems from the ability of USAS representatives to relate to the sweatshop laborers.

“The average age for a sweatshop worker is 19 and female – my age,” Evans said. But she said she realized that students like herself and the Mexican workers face “different realities.”

“If the women I talked to were born in the United States and I was born in Mexico,” Evans said, “our lives would be reversed completely.”

Evans said the argument for a living wage stretches beyond developing countries to all textile workers around the world. The debate rages in urban areas of the United States as well: Evans said she could travel to Los Angeles and find the relatives of the workers she visited in Mexico laboring in similar conditions because illegal immigrants can’t unionize so there is no incentive for employers to treat them better. If they do, Evans said, employees can have them deported.

“A lot of people say we don’t know what we’re talking about because we’re here in America, a First World country, when a lot of (other countries) are going through this development,” she said. “But it’s going on, it’s happening, it’s real.” nyou