Changing Mindsets: Sweatshop Challenge Simulation

By Matt Friedman

One way to reach people is to include them as participants in a story. For the past ten years, I have given presentations on the subject of modern slavery to schools across Asia. While most students appear to understand the basic details and the importance of the issue, with so much school content being taught on a daily basis, I wanted to see if we could offer an approach that would have more of a lasting impact.

I began to show films that offered a glimpse into the lives of trafficked persons. Because the students could see for themselves victims of forced labor, this helped to increase their understanding of the suffering endured. But even this didn’t have sufficient impact to significantly change the attitudes and behaviors of students. So I decided to try something different. Below are an example of what I came up with.

The Sweatshop Challenge is a methodology used to help students understand what it is like to be in an exploitative work situation. This simulation can be done with students ranging from 8th grade to seniors in high school. For every 50 students, there should be two volunteers.  Here is a description of the methodology:

This activity is usually done first thing in the morning. When the students arrive, they are immediately escorted to the gymnasium without an explanation. Upon entering, the organizers shout at them — “line up, stand in place and don’t talk.” They are given one nut and one bolt. They are then told that their classes have been cancelled for the next five hours and they will stand in place and repeatedly screw and unscrew their nuts and bolts. They are also instructed that if they talk, make eye contact with the organizers, or work too slowly, they will receive an automatic detention.

For 30 minutes, the organizers hand out detentions – even for arbitrary breaches or no breaches at all. Many of the students stand there not knowing what to do with themselves. They have never been in a situation where they are mandated to stand and do this kind of repetitive, manual labor. The expressions on their faces often include bewilderment and confusion. Others become angry and frustrated. 

After just 30 minutes, the students are told they can sit down, their classes will continue as scheduled, and they will NOT be receiving any detentions. The following statement is then made:

“Imagine if you had to do this work from 6 am until 11 pm every day without a day off. Imagine if there was always someone standing there shouting at you, punishing you if you didn’t do it fast enough. Imagine if this was your life.  How would it feel? This happens to 25 million people around the world who are trapped in modern slavery. You only had to do this for 30 minutes. But what if this was your life?”  

The remaining time is used to talk about how the students felt about the experience. What were their emotions? How did it feel to lose control of their time? This helps them to fully understand what forced labor actually means.

This interactive approach helps students to experience what it is like to lose control of their lives, even for a short period of time. This is a powerful lesson. It gives them a taste of what many trafficking victims experience when they first find out they are under the control of others. Most importantly, it includes them in the story itself.  Below are some testimonials.

“I never did anything like this at school before. After doing this thing, I now know a little of how it feels to be a victim.”

“The sweatshop activity was one of the most powerful lessons I ever had at school. I really thought I was going to have to stand there for five hours. I was so afraid.”

“When I read stories about these people in slavery, I’ll remember how I felt. It was really educational.”

“We do this every year now. It is one of our most talked about events.  The students really do feel changed.”          A Teacher

Published by Matthew S. Friedman

Matthew Friedman is an international keynote speaker, the CEO of The Mekong Club, and a former United Nations and U.S. diplomat. A leading global expert on modern slavery, Friedman has more than 30 years of experience as an inspirational and motivational public speaker.

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