Effectiveness of Global Anti-Sweatshop Movement Questioned

HARTFORD, Conn. – Are politics based on the conscience of affluent consumers in the global North the best means of effecting change for workers in the developing South?  That was the central question Samanthi Gunawardana posed recently to a packed auditorium at Trinity College. Gunawardana, the inaugural McGill Visiting Assistant Professor of International Studies at Trinity, spent 12 months living and working among assembly line laborers at an apparel factory in the Katunayake Free Trade Zone in Sri Lanka.  Through her research, Gunawardana found “dissonance between the proactive actions and views of workers and portrayals of women as victims in the global anti-sweatshop movement.”

Pictured L-R: Samanthi J. Gunawardana, McGill Visiting Assistant Professor of International Studies, with Charles H. McGill III '63, P'94 and Patricia C. McGill P'94 

Gunawardana described how the contemporary global anti-sweatshop movement arose in the 1990s in response to deteriorating working conditions around the world, including in the Free Trade Zones – areas of developing nations established with the support of local government, the United Nations and the International Monetary Fund to encourage foreign investment.  Activists targeted multi-national corporations through what Gunawardana described as “moral shock motivation” – publicly shaming corporations until they agreed to improve working conditions in their factories.

The problem with this type of campaign, Gunawardana argued, was that it relies heavily on images of women as victims, reinforcing negative cultural stereotypes, and demeaning the women they purport to help.  Questioning why these images are so powerful, Gunawardana argued, that efforts that originate with the workers themselves including union formation, should be supported by northern activists.

Gunawardana’s lecture provoked a powerful response among Trinity students.  Senior economics major Wen Qi Zhao said she gained "insight about an issue that we have been informed of mainly by the media.”  Zhao said Gunawardana challenged students to see factory workers “in a completely new light” and “confront the women that work in the sweatshops as individuals.  She reminded us of the importance of truly understanding the needs of a global society through dialogue and transnational networks."

Global studies major Hanako Justice ’10 said Gunawardana made her rethink her own plans for the future, and reconsider the role of outside activists.  “It is not always the outsiders’ responsibility to come in,” said Justice.  “I think it is crucial to understand that these women are not helpless … they have opinions and have a voice, and will find ways to get help, rather than having others enforce their opinions on them.  I only hope I can apply this philosophy to my own work in the future.”

The March 3 lecture was part of Gunawardana’s yearlong tenure as the McGill Visiting Assistant Professor of International Studies at Trinity College.  The Patricia C. and Charles H. McGill III ’63 International Studies Fund was established in 1996 with a gift to the College from Patricia and Charles McGill and a matching grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities.  The fund supports the appointment of visiting humanities scholars (mainly international scholars) in all the concentrations composing International Studies:  African Studies, Asian Studies, Latin American Studies, Middle-Eastern Studies, Post-Colonial Studies and Russian and Eurasian Studies.  Initially, these scholars’ stay at Trinity was limited to one semester; Gunawardana is the first to serve as McGill Visiting Assistant Professor for a full year, during which time she has taught classes on corporations, global labor, and gender and globalization.