Jay Kerr – No Sweat 😌

We chatted with Jay Kerr, campaigner of No Sweat, (a grassroots campaign group building solidarity among workers worldwide) about supply chains, punk shows & doing business as an activist.

💖 So, tell me about your history with No Sweat. How did you get involved with the organisation?

I joined No Sweat back in 2001 after I met a guy doing a stall at the London Anarchist Bookfair.

I was about 19 at the time, & back when I was a kid, being the only punk rocker in school I used to get beaten up by the trendies for not wearing Ralph Lauren or some shit, and my only comeback at the time was “yeah, well all your clothes are made in sweatshops!” I didn’t really know what I was talking about, but I knew it was a thing.

So when I saw this guy doing a No Sweat stall I was like “hey, you are the people I need to speak to!”. He gave me some flyers & invited me along to a demo outside Nike on Oxford Street, & now eighteen years later I’m still doing it!

💖 With that in mind, what can people go to/get involved with in terms of No Sweat or anti-sweatshop activism?

No Sweat’s main focus at the moment is building our T-shirt project, where we import T-shirts from workers co-ops run by ex-sweatshop workers & use the profits to help fund garment workers unions that work for the rights of people still in the sweatshop system.

But we love to hear from people interested in campaigning & getting involved with new ideas!

There are some other groups out there doing good stuff in the world of anti-sweatshop campaigning, like Labour Behind the Label, War on Want, & Fashion Revolution. Then there is group People & Planet that are doing some good things on the technology side of things, campaigning against poor conditions in tech manufacturing.

💖 Tell me about the birth of Punk Ethics then!

The No Sweat T-Shirt project is its own thing. Punk Ethics is a small collective that promotes the progressive elements of punk.

When I came back to the UK after working a few years overseas with groups like MAP Foundation in Thailand, who do great work on the front line of sweatshop campaigning. I wanted to get back into the punk scene & talk to people again. I didn’t want to necessarily just do the anti- sweatshop campaign.

Before I left, around 2007-2010, we did regular monthly gigs that were either punk nights or comedy nights. They were all part of No Sweat/a fundraiser for the cause, which was great. But, I did think that the world is much bigger than that – lets’ think about alternative things!

So I came up with Punk Ethics as an idea to do stuff under the punk umbrella of activism. When I came back we did something called TRESSPASS. Do you know about TRESSPASS?

💖 Yeah I’ve read a little bit about it but for our readers . . .

Mark Thomas was developing a show called Trespass in which he highlighted the loss of public space to corporations & private interests, highlighting things like the Southbank walkway being completely private land, you can walk on it but you don’t have the right of access in the same way you do with public land.

As part of his Trespass  show, Mark did a kind of pop up comedy gig where he got about 100 people to meet by Tower Bridge & then walk to one of the few areas near there that is public land, then sit everyone down & do a comedy show.

In his set he mentioned that the beach of the River Thames was one of these areas of public land.

That sparked my interest, so I spoke to him afterwards about it & said could I organize a punk gig on the beach then? He said “you absolutely could do! & if you do – I’m going to be there!”

We went away, booked a bunch of bands & emailed him saying “we’re doing it,” so he agreed to come along & compere the show. It was an epic gig.

📸 : @kimfordy

That was under the Punk Ethics banner, as the first thing that we did.

The next thing we did was work with activist punks in Burma who do a ‘food not bombs’ thing, with a band called Rebel Riot.

I had met them before in Burma & knew the stuff they were doing. They really embody the idea of Punk Ethics, punks doing things to help their community, not just getting fucked up & going to gigs. I knew what they did & just connected with them through that sort of stuff.

We organized a few benefit gigs in London to send money out to help develop their scene & develop their Food Not Bombs project, & then decided we would try to bring them over to tour the UK.

We arranged a crowdfunder campaign to raise the £5k needed to bring them over & take them around the country, had to overcome a few problems with visas & eventually managed to bring them over!

It was the first time any of them had visited London before & was quite a monumental moment! They definitely see the UK as the home of punk, & know the history of the Sex Pistols & The Clash & all that stuff.

As far as I was aware, it was the first tour with a Burmese punk band in the UK, given that it’s a country that has been in isolation for around 60 years & came out of a dictatorship over the last 10 years.

📸 : @kimfordy

While we were organizing the tour I was starting up the No Sweat T-shirt project, so we provided the T-shirts for the tour, & then later decided to take this further & combine the two a little more: No Sweat is running a T-shirt project, punks wear T-shirts, so we created a new campaign called Punks Against Sweatshops.

💖 Do you think that there has always been a natural affinity between punk music & anti-sweatshop campaigning? Or do you feel like you’re pushing a bolder up a hill?

There is an affinity in the sense that punk has a legacy of being focused on social justice, but I think it’s just a financial thing.

Bigger bands feel like they can’t buy ethically, because they can’t get the t-shirts ordered in big enough quantities. Or they just pass it off to some agency somewhere who does it all for them that doesn’t really think about sweatshops.

They write songs about social justice & workers’ rights & don’t necessarily follow through.

There is an affinity in the sense that punk has a legacy of being focused on social justice […] They write songs about social justice & workers’ rights & don’t necessarily follow through

Smaller bands think about this more because they’re underground. & in terms of their politics, they’re more in your face in the DIY punk scene.

But they can’t necessarily afford to get ethical t-shirts, because that is how they make their bread & butter – selling a few t-shirts to get some petrol money, to get from A to B.

It’s not as bad as pushing a bolder up a hill however!

We’ve been building this current campaign for the last year & a half. In that time we’ve had a lot of bands on board, but a lot of them couldn’t afford it.

Creating a momentum around it, is really a big thing. Because then you have bands thinking “ok, I can afford the extra quid or whatever it is”.

All bands need to do is increase their merch by 2 quid or so to cover the extra cost & push it on to the consumer.

Although every punk wants to get in for two quid or whatever…

💖 & a couple of cans of Tyskie . . .

& then spend 50 quid a night on beer! You’re moaning about 2 quid extra on a t-shirt …

You need to excite people around the idea, rather than just present it with an increased price.

Having people like Propagandhi & Jello Biafra make a statement about it & putting that in a video – we have had a huge response with people being like “we should have been doing this ages ago!”.

💖 Corporations have been looking at this kind of stuff for 10-13 years. What do you think that corporations get wrong, that the activist community are getting right?

From a No Sweat perspective, there’s an issue with a lot of corporations.

📸 : @kimfordy

There’s been very quick moves to try & create accreditation bodies & things like that, stating that we have ethical principles. But since they started, they’ve always failed to meet the requirements.

So there’s a disconnect somehow between the two.

Our project in particular is really focusing on only sourcing from workers co-ops, full stop.

Ideally sourcing from workers co-ops, run by former sweatshop workers, & then using the money to fund the campaign needs to build the trade union.

From our perspective, the only thing that can really tackle sweatshops is to form a strong union. Without that, you end up in the situation we’ve got at the moment – where companies make codes of conduct & ethical commitments, & then never embrace it.

From our perspective, the only thing that can really tackle sweatshops is to form a strong union. Without that, you end up in the situation we’ve got at the moment – where companies make codes of conduct & ethical commitments, & then never embrace it.

So there’s that disconnect between what a company might put on its website & what actually happens in the factories, which are often worlds apart.

By doing this project, we bring the two together.

At the same time, we can fund trade union campaigns that go inside to sweatshops to organise workers, & fight for the better conditions of people who work in those factories. It becomes a circular economy.

💖 So how did you get in touch with the co-ops?

I tried contacting a few big organisations & no one was really able to tell me anything. Googling came up with an organisation in Thailand called The Dignity Returns. They were the first people we worked with.

We discovered a lot in this process: we started out as activists & now we’re learning how business works, which is really interesting.

we started out as activists & now we’re learning how business works, which is really interesting

We still have stock from Thailand, but we’re sourcing more from Bangladesh now because Thailand was just too expensive in terms of shipping.

We try to keep an eye on where suppliers are sourcing from but we’re at the start of a journey & again – things like organic cotton come at a cost which we’re still figuring out how to afford.

In terms of products right now we’re expanding into hoodies & different coloured t-shirts. We started out with just black t-shirts.

We keep being asked to do long sleeves & people don’t realise how hard it was to get those in the first place. But hopefully we’ll have a full range one day!

💖 Maybe if you could get a bunch of bands to sign up? Once a year or something, they all buy a load of T-shirts for tour at the same time & then you can source t-shirts cheaper?

When we started out, we just bought 1000 t-shirts. Then we made a little bit of profit on each one. The mark-up isn’t huge, but a little bit of profit.

That goes straight back into the project to buy in the next round. & with the profit, we can increase it to 2000 t-shirts. Then next time, 3000. So hopefully, in like two years’ time, we’ll be buying 10,000 t-shirts.

If we can get bands collectively to sign up & if we get more people ordering, & know it’s going to come at a certain time for tour schedules & stuff that could work.

Rebellion are now on board which is incredible! It also helps us as it guarantees stock.

We’re also trying to target trade unions!

The GMB, have bought a load off of us, & the few campaigns connected to them.

💖 What is next on the agenda for you guys?

In terms of the Punk Ethics thing, we’ve got a bunch of orders in, which is great & people are inquiring.

The video has generated the excitement!

Our next stage is to create a kind of living wage accreditation scheme.

I used to work for The Living Wage Foundation. They give businesses their logo & say, ‘you pay a living wage, take this logo, put it on your website, that shows you are a living wage organisation & we’ll put your logo on our page of employers.’

That’s how they grow their campaign. So I’m adopting that strategy.

We’ve created a Punks Against Sweatshops logo.

If you want to connect with us & put your band logo on our website, we will have a list of logos of all the bands that have signed up.

No Sweat at the moment is just carrying on trying to build the t-shirt campaign. In terms of the activist stuff – if things take off with it we’ll see where we can go with that.

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