Over 100 anti-sweatshop and workers’ rights activists gathered in London on the weekend of 1-2 December for this year’s No Sweat conference. The theme chosen for this year’s conference by the campaign — which works within the anti-capitalist movement to argue for solidarity with workers’ movements at home and abroad — was “Beating Big Brand Exploitation”.
Activists from across the UK discussed the campaigns they had been involved in through the past year, and furthermore how our activity might find expression in new arenas and link up with other campaigns. For example, the question of water privatisation in India is of direct relevance to the burgeoning environmentalist movement.
Similarly the RMT union’s attempts to organise cleaners on the London Underground are clearly an important focus for those involved in migrants’ rights campaigns, since most cleaners are immigrants; all are badly paid with few employment rights; and some are even at risk of deportation.
Sessions at the conference also displayed the importance of international solidarity. After a showing of the film Black Gold, which portrayed the injustice suffered by coffee farmers in Ethopia who earn just pennies for a kilo of coffee which costs dozens of times more in the United States, the Industrial Workers of the World’s Adam Lincoln spoke of his efforts to organise coffee shop workers in the UK into a “Baristas’ Union”, parallelling similar fast-food workers’ campaigns in Europe, the USA and the Antipodes.
The fight of the farmers exploited by companies like Starbucks in Africa and Central America is the same as that of the largely casual workers who sell coffee for crap wages in their stores.
The No Sweat event was not all talk however — on Saturday evening twenty-five activists staged a demonstration outside Topshop on Oxford Street, in protest at plutocrat Philip Green’s use of sweatshop labour to produce clothes for his stores. With some dressed up as Father Christmas, others as the Fashion Police, and a clothes line set up to “hang out TopShop's dirty laundry”, we had a vibrant picket, shouting “TopShop, sweatshop!” and singing Christmas carols with anti-sweatshop lyrics, all whilst handing out well over a thousand leaflets to Christmas shoppers. The police took a dim view of our “obstruction” — matching us for numbers almost one-for-one, they told us that it was too busy for us to stand on the pavement.
One of our number had already been arrested by a Topshop security guard who, having pushed our man hard up against a locked door, detained him in a special cell within Topshop!
The conference provided a good basis for further campaigning, particularly since the closing plenary featured a speech by an activist engaged in the French student struggles. Some of us will be visiting striking French students on 11-14 December, while No Sweat also arranged actions against Topshop on 6 December and G Star on 17 December, along with a benefit gig with Alabama 3 on 21 December.
• See www.nosweat.org.uk for more details.