The Ain’t I A Woman?! Campaign was started by a group of garment workers fighting DKNY. While wealthy women, such as the founder of DKNY - Donna Karan - were being heralded as icons by the mainstream feminist movement, the garment workers making clothes for DKNY, most of whom were immigrant women of color, were forced to work 70 to 80 hours a week, without overtime and paid less than minimum wage.


So what exactly is the Ain't I A Woman campaign?

The Ain’t I A Woman?! Campaign is a national outreach and educational effort led by women workers to demand that those benefiting the most from sweatshop labor are held accountable–whether we work in garment factories, home healthcare, or offices. A century after Sojourner Truth’s struggles against racism and sexism, women workers are refusing to be treated like slaves or second-class citizens. The AIW Campaign is sponsored by Chinese Staff & Workers’ Association and National Mobilization Against SweatShops, and has provided leadership to women workers in the fight against sweatshop conditions and for control of our lives.

What is our analysis?

Code of Conduct - Asking the Fox to Guard the Chicken Coop

Our “Ain’t I a Woman” campaign has been launched amidst a great deal of anti-sweatshop activism. For the most part, unfortunately, sweatshops are framed as a problem of “the other” : far-away workers in Third World countries, immigrant garment workers in this country hidden away behind barbed wires and locked gates.

An upsurge of activity has been directed at helping these workers: the U.S. Labor Department launched a “No Sweat” campaign to encourage manufacturers to sign on to “voluntary compliance” with labor laws. Students are demanding that their schools contract only with companies that agree to a “code of conduct” – which typically prohibits forced labor, child labor and violations of labor laws – and to “public disclosure” of where and under what conditions their goods are made. Advocacy groups are organizing consumer boycotts of companies exploiting workers abroad, chasing companies like Disney from Haiti to China and promoting the union label.

A new form of imperialism has emerged, where U.S. consumers are depicted as the key agents of change and the ones who know whatís best for those sweatshop workers who are suffering. Power is seen to reside in your ability to buy things, as a consumer, rather than in your ability to make things or make things run as a worker.

This focus on sweatshops overseas actually helps to protect sweatshops in the U.S., diverting attention from the expanding sweatshop system here and driving work from abroad to domestic sweatshops.

Voluntary compliance and monitoring measures are also naive. “No Sweat” and Codes of Conducts are based on the premise that corporations are well intentioned. How effective can these measures be if they are asking corporations to voluntarily contradict the very goal of corporations: to make a profit? Moreover, even if independent monitors investigate factories, workers will not tell the truth about sweatshop conditions if they are not organized to face threats of harassment, firing and blacklisting.

For example, workers from two of the largest sweatshops in Brooklyn, N.Y., were forced to work as long as 137 hours a week producing Street Beat Sportswear for retailers like Sears. Several were fired after asking for a day off. Workers were owed almost $300,000 in unpaid minimum wage and overtime pay and damages. Street Beat had three years earlier signed two compliance agreements with the Department of Labor.

Women’s Work and the Sweatshop Company

The sweatshop conditions faced by the Pactiv workers are not so far removed from the experiences of most women workers in this country. Women are disproportionately concentrated in clerical, service-sector and manufacturing jobs. Among all women workers in the U.S., one in five is a cashier, secretary or teacher. Nearly six out of 10 African American women work as nursing attendants, janitors, cleaners, cooks and maids. Immigrant women often take jobs as domestic workers, hotel and restaurant workers, orderlies, nursing assistants and laborers in manufacturing jobs such as garment and meat processing. Unfortunately, these very important areas of work, which we all depend on, tend to be devalued and lower-paid. And regardless of educational levels, in any occupation women are routinely paid less than men doing the same work.

And this is just the woman’s “official” job. Regardless of race or class, women are still the primary caretakes of children and elderly relatives, and still take on a disproportionate responsibility for housework. This “women’s work” is never recognized or valued as work, but is simply expected of women.

Adding insult to injury, women who have been caring for their children at home and receiving welfare benefits are now being forced into workfare, a government-supported cheap-labor program. These women are working starvation wages doing demeaning and dead-end work, while often having no choice but to pay a babysitter to watch their children.

Stuck in low-wage jobs and shouldering primary responsibility for their children, many women lack the economic autonomy to escape abusive relationships at home. Those who do are sometimes forced to work several jobs or turn to sex work as a quick way to put food on the table. Nearly a third of all families headed by women are living below the poverty-line. Even well-paid professional women cannot escape hard choices around career and motherhood. For many, advancement means giving all your time, which means having no time for children. Moreover, many bosses fail to offer maternity leave or to guarantee that mothers’ jobs will be available when they return.