Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Dirty Money

So I just learned about a new documentary called "Made in L.A." (free screening Thursday night at All Saints Pas if you're in the area). The film follows the lives of three Latina immigrants working in LA's sweat-shop garment district and their lawsuit/boycott brought against the clothing store "Forever 21."

Along with the announcement of the docu, I was informed that the president of Forever 21, Do Won Chang, donated the money for the most recently constructed apartments on Fuller's campus, Chang Commons. So we have a beautiful new building courtesy of the exploitation of workers. How very wrong - at a seminary, of all places.

Reading the synopsis of the film is even more disheartening. According to the filmmakers (who are on the side of the workers), the store was approached quietly first and asked to comply with better working conditions. After they were "rebuffed," the campaign went public with a boycott and a lawsuit, which dragged in the courts for three years (purposely, according to those on the workers' side, to disenchant them). They rallied outside the stores and outside the home of Chang. They hoped for understanding from him, considering his fellow immigrant status. There is no way that this man can deny that he knew about the situation. They stood outside his house. Why didn't he invite them in? Why didn't he hear their complaint?

This information should spark some kind of response. Ideally, Fuller never should have taken the money. But maybe they didn't know. So now, they should return the money. I don't know how they would get so much, but I know that it is unethical for us to have this building, and it's certainly anti-Christian principles. Or, since we are stuck with it, perhaps it could be renamed: "Exploitation Commons", perhaps? To make it clear we do not approve?

Ah, these things would never happen. I couldn't even get a story like this published in our school newspaper, I'm sure - which is sad, because this is exactly the kind of thing that the Daily Trojan would have eaten up (bless those non-people-pleasing presses!). I bet if I tried to picket the building with signs about exploitation I'd be removed forcibly (probably wouldn't help my PhD application either). I can only hope that Dr. Mouw still reads this blog. Maybe there's another side - maybe there has been repentance and restitution made.

We have to be so careful. We can't just buy stuff anywhere (J points out, also, that calling your store "Forever 21" glorifies youth which is also not very loving towards the whole body of Christ), and we can't take money from just anyone. You just can't, not when you know that it's dirty. Would Fuller take money from Larry Flynt? I'm not saying the two men are the same, I'm just saying that in some cases I think Fuller would care about who their named buildings are associated with, and in others, they seem not to. Or at least, sex is a lot more dirty than worker exploitation. Which is something we all should have seen coming.

Well it's all quite disappointing, and especially annoying to know there's not much that can be done. I wonder if the peace & justice group on campus would even discuss it? It would make for an interesting topic, though - since most Fuller people are going to be pastors, it wouldn't hurt to have a talk about ground rules for where your church will get its money. If we have a billionaire - let's say, a Walton (Wal-Mart family) - in our church, do we take that money? Do we ask them to make things right first? It's very complicated (especially speaking as an ex-Development Director!). I think our first responsibility is to help the person get their soul in tune with God, and that means we are committed to their spiritual improvement more than our building's (or whatever else we'd used their money for). And that also means that, until things are set right, we are on the side of their oppressed workers more than on their side, even though they are in our church. Because God takes the side of the oppressed. And until there is repentance (in the real sense, with change), we cannot accept what we know belongs to Caesar.

These are just my thoughts off the top of my head. But it brings up a lot of issues, doesn't it?


Dave said...

Thanks for posting this. I haven't seen the movie, so I'm not sure if they offer any updated information on the situation, but the Wikipedia entry for 'Forever 21' says that the lawsuit from 2001 (which appears to be the case documented in the film - let me know if this is incorrect!) was dropped after the company agreed to pay back wages to the workers. Obviously, if the working conditions, benefits, etc. of the workers have not improved, simply offering back wages is not enough to remedy the situation, but I haven't found any information that shows or suggests any documented exploitation after the 2001 incident/boycott. Do you know if there have been any more reported complaints against Forever 21 since 2001?

Also, do you know when Fuller accepted the donation for the new building? I'm curious whether it was before or after the 2001 situation...

Thanks for asking challenging questions - hopefully dialogue can happen and answers can come into the clear on this issue.

Ian said...

Larry Flynt is a champion in many ways like Tom Paine. I would implore you to check out his non-porn site to see some of the work that he has done.

Stasi said...

Dave, my point was more that if it takes legal action to get a Christian to change something they shouldn't have allowed in the first place, then that still stinks. I would be glad to hear things have changed, but am still sorry it took so much time and effort especially for the workers who probably didn't have the time or resources! (and they did try to approach him without legal action first - that should have stopped it immediately and there should have been no need for a lawsuit - after the initial contact, ignorance could not be claimed) Offering back wages is a solution that sounds like repentance. I'm sure the filmmakers would know how the conditions may have changed - go to the screening if you can, they will be there!
I don't know when Fuller accepted the donation, but having worked in development, I know that a donation that size would be courted for several years, and considering the time it took for construction, it was probably around the time of the controversy. Usually a named building is a huge donation and it is not just offered, it is wooed.

To Ian, I personally don't have much beef with Larry Flynt (except I don't love exploitation of women, even if they agree to it), I just used him because he's definitely someone Fuller wouldn't take money from. I think!

Dave said...

Thanks for the response. You are right that it shouldn't take a lawsuit for a company to change their unjust (and sinful) business practices. Although it may be "better" if the money was accepted after the company had "repented", I agree that it is not the "best." But, assuming that there haven't been further infractions, it seems that at some point the company's donations should no longer be seen as 'blood money'...but, I don't know all the details, so who knows?

I'd love to go see the movie, but unfortunately I have class that night.

Again, thanks for writing about this. It's an important issue that shouldn't be ignored.

Stasi said...

That brings up another really interesting point - when do we forgive? When does "dirty money" get cleaned? Obviously we believe in forgiveness and reconciliation as Christians. But then again, I go back to naming a building in honor of ill-gotten gains. Perhaps removing the name? There is always forgiveness...but there are consequences as well. (can you tell I've been reading the prophets all morning??)

Karleen A. Jung said...

I work in the labor movement and am also a student at Fuller. First of all, it wasn't much of an act of penance on the part of Mr. Chang to pay the back wages--it's required by law and, even if he hadn't "settled" the lawsuit, he would have been required to make the workers "whole" by paying twice their back wages. In my experience, most employers who exploit workers like this continue to do it. In the 20 years I've been doing this work, I've never seen an employer like this do a 180 so, although I can't see into the heart of Mr. Chang, it would be unusual for this to happen.

In regards to Fuller's response, or lack thereof, at least they should come clean publicly. If there was remorse on the part of Mr. Chang--wonderful! Then Fuller has nothing to be ashamed of. If not, then Fuller needs to take a hard look at its policies. It seems ironic to me that in an ecclesiology class last quarter, we, as students, were challenged to know the source of gifts to our future churches for this very same reason. "What's good for the goose..."

We need to raise this issue with the PJCC...