Sunday, January 13, 2008

Update on Changgate

My bud Kent sent me this information about the Forever 21 controversy and some Fuller students' interaction with it:

A few comments, having seen the documentary and heard from the makers of it. (A young Spanish woman, who was a UCLA grad student/TA and took 5 years making it, with her American husband's help. They are now putting whatever money they can get into distributing it. It was shown on PBS, which was big.)

Forever 21 did sign an out-of-court, confidential agreement with the workers in 2006, the gist of which was they would not sell clothes that were not made under "legal conditions" (minimum wage, overtime, 8 hour days, no massive safety/health violations, etc.) This means that these conditions were not necessarily (and, in fact, not actually) in place prior to 2006. And the issue of enforcement still remains. They have been getting mixed reports: some workers talk about real changes, others experience more of the same.

Here is how the process went, as the doc depicts (which I plan to show on Fuller campus this year):
1) 19 workers brought a suit over minimum wage, no overtime, back wages etc.;
2) the suit was initially thrown out by a judge (the normal excuse retailers make is they have no knowledge or control over what their sub-contractors do--not their employees--and therefore can't be held responsible);
3) CEO Chang brought an anti-defamation suit against the (quite poor, even undocumented) workers, after their suit was thrown out;
4) the lawyer at the worker center--who, interestingly, was an Asian woman who spoke Spanish, and was representing Latinos against an Asian-owned company--sought an appeal of the judge's decision, which took a LONG time to even get a hearing;
5) meanwhile, the protest/boycott by these dozens of workers continued for 3 years, on the weekends (they kept working during that time), with all the typical ups and downs of morale/unity of such campaigns;
6) finally, the court upheld the worker's appeal, bringing Forever 21 back to court;
7) Chang agreed to negotiate out-of-court (either for PR reasons or a change of heart, or both) and did make a settlement, for which the workers were quite pleased and relieved (however, this did not establish a legal precendent of the responsiblity of retailers to their sub-contractors). Forever 21 has now grown to a billon-dollar company, very popular among teenage girls, I guess, including Latinas.

So, I felt better that something was accomplished justice-wise and Chang negotiated. However, Fuller took the money with no strings attached and before the settlement was reached. The settlement had no influence on whether or not they took the money (which I think was in the neighborhood 20-30 million). And, Chang was basically forced to negotiate when the worker's appeal was upheld by the court (his initial impulse seemed to be to punish the workers when their suit was rejected, and kick them when they were down). But he did do it, in the end.

I can also say the PJCC [editor's note: this is the Peace & Justice Concerns Committee, a student group at Fuller] has a sweat-shop display in the Garth about 4 years, which led to conversations with the Development Office about our concerns about Forever 21's business practices. (The same guy as is currently in charge; can't think of his name right now.) They asked us not to display Forever 21's name prominently in our display. They mentioned cultural sensitivities around Asians and shame. They said several Fuller people had talked to Chang (even members of his church) somehow about some of these concerns. We just listed their name along with a bunch of other sweat-shop type comapnies, not as a focal point.

The most amazing part of the doc by far ("must see") is the lives/stories/spirits of the three Latina immigrant women they highlight. Very moving, very real, no-hype, changes your view of these matters. They make some real personal transformations in their lives as a result of standing up (and suffer, as is their lot). Otherwise our economy cares nothing about them and they are nothing to us. This is why I have the DVD and will show in on campus this year. It also shows the very hard, often discouraging, nitty-gritty work of trying to organize people to make change, especially when you are small and weak. And yet there are real happy endings and real hope and real changes.

No comments: