Chanting "No Justice, No Peace," a coalition of nine labor, religious and community groups marched through Boston this Saturday under the auspices of the National Day of Conscience Against Sweatshops called by the National Labor Committee, a labor and human rights advocacy group.
Among the 300 protesters were 14 Harvard students from the Progressive Student Labor Movement (PSLM) group on campus, led by Daniel M. Hennefeld '99.
"I've never been to a rally before," said YiLing L. Chen-Josephson '98, a member of the PSLM. "I just wanted to see the process of putting it into practice."
According to one of the organizers of the march, Michael Prokosch '70, the goal of the protest was to put pressure on garment makers to "open up their factories to genuine independent inspection [of working conditions]."
"Until now, there was only one garment company that has set up an independent monitoring program, and that's The Gap," said Prokosch, who is the national program director for Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador (CISPES). "Other companies, specifically Guess? and NIKE, have set up self-monitoring programs which are a mockery."
Although The Gap was not targeted by protesters this year, some said they felt that the company still needed to take further action.
"The Gap has done some improvement in El Salvador factories," said Marci Diamond, a volunteer with CISPES, "but we're asking that The Gap also improve conditions in subcontracting facilities in other countries."
Organizers also said the march was intended to raise awareness about the low wage levels in the international garment industry.
"This is a day of national action, and in over 50 cities, [members of] the National Labor Committee are holding similar events," said David Amdur, a member of the Boston chapter of the CISPES.
Other groups participating in the march included Jobs with Justice, the Massachusetts branch of the AFL-CIO, UNITE and the Labor Guild of Boston.
"Sweatshops's aren't just abroad, they're in this country," Prokosch said. "Fifty percent of the garment factories in the United States are sweatshops."
Protesters specifically targeted their criticism on clothing manufacturer Guess? Inc., shoe distributor Nike, Inc. and the Walt Disney Corporation, an entertainment conglomerate.
"Workers are treated poorly and without respect and this is unfair," wrote Miranda E. Worthen '01 on a leaflet given to all of the PSLM members before the march.
"We hope this [march] will destroy the popular images of Guess, Nike and Disney [and] show the CEO's that these Harvard students do not tolerate injustice and will be active," she added.
Protesters paused to picket in front of the Guess? and NikeTown stores on Newbury Street. Near the end of the march, a small group of protesters managed to get past guards at Copley Place to picket in front of the Disney Store inside the mall before turning back under threat of arrest by the Boston Police.
"We didn't want to get arrested," said Kimberly A. Wilson, a member of Jobs for Justice.
Managers at the Disney Store at Copley Place and the Guess? shop on Newbury Street refused to comment on the protest.
However, Megan F. Judge, the events coordinator for the NikeTown store, said she "honestly believed" the accusations against Nike were false.
"People are expressing their freedom of speech," she said, as picketers marched in front of the building. "I'd like them to take a look at the facts and look at the positive changes that are happening, and our leadership position in the industry."
Nike officials responded to the protest by distributing copies of a review of Nike's work practices conducted by Andrew Young, a former member of the United Nations, that found "no evidence or pattern of widespread or systematic abuse or mistreatment of workers."
According to Dwight H. Perkins, Burbank professor of political economy at the Harvard Institute for International Development, contractors who produce shoes for Nike in Vietnam must pay a generous official minimum wage for foreign producers.
"The factories that supply Nike basically pay three times what local workers get for the same kind of work," he said. "They're still low wages, but for Vietnamese workers on the whole, they're attractive wages."
Consumers seemed sympathetic to the marchers' cause.
"It may not prevent me from buying anything, but it would make me think twice," said Kathy L. Smith, a Boston resident who observed the march from her outdoor lunch table on Newbury Street. "It does raise my consciousness of realizing what [businesses] are doing."