The holiday season is upon us once again. Streets are adorned with wreaths and colored lights, and people hustle to and fro searching for gifts for their loved ones. Amidst this action, blurry-eyed students stumble back and forth from the library, engrossed in studying for exams and writing papers. In such a setting it's easy to lose sight of the true meaning of the season.
For Christians like myself, this means remembering the birth of a special child to two poor parents in the most humble of environments. This most important of births was not first announced to the kings and rulers of the land but to lowly shepherds working in the fields tending to their sheep. Breaking through the materialism that American consumer culture erects to shroud the season's true meaning, we can reflect upon these figures' counterparts in the contemporary world: the poor, the vulnerable and the oppressed.
It is this type of Christmas reflection that will bring local religious, labor and community leaders to Washington Square Park on Thursday evening for the eighth annual Holiday Season of Conscience Candle Light March to End Childhood and Sweatshop abuses, joining the new NYU chapter of United Students Against Sweatshops and the National Labor Committee. This year's march focuses special attention on the actions of NYU's two most famous millionaire students.
Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen have collaborated with Wal-Mart to produce a special clothing line bearing their name. Wal-Mart is the world's largest retailer, and is also universally recognized as its most notorious sweatshop abuser. Last year the Maquila Solidarity Network, which oversees sweatshop abuse worldwide, awarded Wal-Mart its 'Sweatshop Retailer of the Year' award.
One of the many abuses that led Wal-Mart to achieve this dubious distinction took place at a garment factory in Malawi, Africa, where workers labored more than 60 hours a week for wages as low as $14 a month. At another Wal-Mart supplier in Nicaragua, where employees worked similar hours for wages of 29 to 34 cents an hour. Workers who tried to organize a labor union were illegally intimidated and fired.
Wal-Mart hasn't racked up a positive labor record in our country, either. The wages of its store 'associates' are so low that many live below the poverty line. The company also provides health benefits to fewer than half its employees - and those they do provide are meager. Wal-Mart managers have forced employees to work off the clock, and the company systematically denies its workers the right to unionize. Wal-Mart has also exploited undocumented workers, forcing them to work long hours in unsafe environments for low pay, and threatening to report them to immigration officials if they challenge their boss' demands.
Despite Wal-Mart's many deep-seated problems, those gathering Thursday are only asking the Olsen twins and Wal-Mart executives to sign one simple Christmas pledge: to ensure that every woman sewing their clothes in Bangladesh be afforded the three months paid maternity leave she is entitled to by law. It is estimated that 90 percent of garment factories in Bangladesh deny this legal right to their workers. In fact, upon becoming pregnant many female workers are fired or harassed until they quit.
To date, 19 major companies have signed this pledge, including Reebok, Sears and the Gap. Thousands of people have visited maternityrights.org and sent e-mails urging the Olsens to step up and do the same. It would be scandalous for Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen, who are held up as examples of successful, independent, young women, to deny this most basic right to the women producing their clothing line.
Thinking of the rampant violation of the rights of pregnant women in Bangladesh, my mind drifts back to another vulnerable, pregnant, young woman desperately seeking aid and shelter in the streets of the Palestinian city of Bethlehem, only to be turned away at the inn.
The NYU community has no tolerance for sweatshop abuse. That is why the university is a member of the Worker Rights Consortium, which rigorously ensures that apparel bearing our school's name is produced in factories adherent to a strict code of conduct. And we study and work in the building that once held the Triangle Shirtwaist Company, which was destroyed in a 1911 fire that killed 146 female workers because of unsafe sweatshop conditions - women workers like those producing the Olsens' clothing in Bangladesh.
This Christmas it is important to realize that the child whose birth we celebrate grew up to be an adult. Living a life of sacrifice and service, he told us, 'Whatsoever you do to the least of my brothers and sisters, you do unto me.'
Events like tonight's serve to remind all students - millionaires and non-millionaires alike - to always be mindful of the least of our brothers and sisters.
Jason Rowe is a columnist for Washington Square News.
E-mail him at email@example.com