"Naked" Anti-Sweatshop Protest, U.C. Berkeley, Friday, April 28, 2006
The group United Students Against Sweatshops sent out a press release in late April announcing that "hundreds" of U.C. Berkeley students would stage an hour-long "naked" protest on April 28 in front of the Chancellor's office in U.C.'s California Hall. It sounded like an interesting event, but previous anti-sweatshop protests also announced as "naked" turned out to be not exactly as advertised, since the attendees never actually got completely nude. Even so -- seeing as this event was described as the big "finale" of the anti-sweatshop protest season -- I decided to check it out to see how many hundreds of students were willing to get nude for the cause.
The answer, as you can see, was zero. Not only did no one have the nerve to do anything more than take off their shirts, a grand total of only 20 protesters showed up. This undoubtedly had something to do with the complete pointlessness and futility of the protest, since the University of California already has anti-sweatshop guidelines for the purchase of university-themed clothing: "UC officials have said their policies already prohibit the use of materials made by forced or indentured labor, but they are nonetheless reviewing the students' proposal."
It's little details like that which can really drain the momentum out of a mass movement.
Yet the protesters soldiered on, and handed out information packets (which are available online in pdf format here) stating that "student activists" had found that university-logo apparel is sometimes still made in overseas factories that they felt qualified as "sweatshops," despite the rules against it.
According to United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS), any factory that isn't unionized and which pays wages that seem shockingly low by American standards qualifies as a sweatshop. But there are a few basic economic facts that seem to be left out of the discussion. Though jobs in third-world factories seem awfully low-paying to affluent westerners, often those "sweatshop" positions are among the highest-paying jobs in the country, and are greatly sought-after.
Take, for instance, this example proffered in the info packet (as seen in the pdf link above):
Collegiate Apparel FACTS
Average daily wage of collegiate apparel workers in Cambodia: $1.85
Cost of one pound of chicken at a Cambodian market located near garment factories: $1.36
Shocking! The Cambodians who make our t-shirts earn only $1.85 a day! But what the USAS doesn't tell you is that the annual average per capita income in Cambodia is $290 -- or 79¢ per day -- less than half what the "sweatshop slaves" earn. In other words, the jobs in these Cambodian clothing factories pay more than double the average job in Cambodia, and are highly desireable within the economic framework of Cambodia. And as for that store with the expensive chicken: don't shop there!
One of the protesters showed her outrage and concern over third-world labor conditions by doing cartwheels and repeatedly flashing her crotch at the eleven people assembled to watch the protest. She seemed oblivious to the fact that Soviet-style top-down economic micromanagement -- as advocated by the USAS -- invariably leads to greater poverty in the long run for any country that tries it.
Meanwhile, her boyfriend was doing the Spastic Dance, which had the sadistic factory overlords in El Salvador and Indonesia quaking in fear!
Together, their gyrations provided most of the day's entertainment. They didn't seem too concerned that the USAS literature listed the Young Communist League (among several other socialist groups -- see the pdf above) as official endorsers.
A KTVU-TV camera crew showed up, along with a smattering of other local media. They let the protesters give their prepared statements, and didn't ask any problematic questions -- like precisely how they planned to compel factory-owners in foreign countries to hand over control of their businesses to trade-unions.
At least one person was willing to show her "vagina," despite the otherwise disappointing lack of nudity.
A student wearing a Muslim hijab took a detour around the pseudo-nudists when she accidentally stumbled upon the protest.
Notice the blatantly "size-ist" attitude of the protesters: only the svelte radicals were allowed to disrobe, while their "big" sisters were forced either by fascist social norms or undeserved self-loathing to cover up their bodies. How can we ever bring freedom to the wage-slaves of the world when we are still slaves to our own outdated beauty standards?
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