portland independent media center  
images audio video
newswire article reposts global

economic justice | labor

Schools profit as sweatshop labor worsens

American university apparel continues to be made under increasingly bleak sweatshop conditions despite pledges from academic leaders that they would help improve the workers' plight.
The Register-Guard, Eugene, Oregon
December 12, 2004

College officials have largely watched from the sidelines as factory workers in the $3 billion-a-year market have seen real wages decline and are being met with greater resistance than ever when they attempt to organize.

Propelled by passionate student protests five years ago, college administrators promised to pressure manufacturers to improve working conditions.

But a Hartford Courant examination shows that colleges are quietly profiting from worsening sweatshop labor even as the national spotlight has shifted to factories that make clothing for rapper P. Diddy and Wal-Mart.

While 131 colleges joined an organization called the Worker Rights Consortium, which was supposed to inspect factories and work with brands such as Nike and Champion to improve conditions, few inspections have taken place. There are now perhaps a half-dozen schools actively working to improve conditions, experts say.

``These are not institutions that should be associated with human misery,'' said U.S. Rep. George Miller, D-Calif. Miller was the first chairman of the Worker Rights Consortium.

Five years ago, University of Connecticut President Philip Austin was among the most ardent supporters of the anti-sweatshop movement, setting up a committee to examine the issue and making UConn a founding member of the consortium. In a recent interview, he acknowledged that his university's involvement had faded, in part because he believed factory conditions had ``improved mightily.''

``Like any other issue, when the issue is on fire, you monitor it. And then you put in place processes and steps and procedures that ensure that when you're not looking every minute, somebody is watching it,'' he said. ``So we spend less time in this office and at this university being directly involved.''

Spurred by sales of clothing celebrating its men's and women's national basketball championships, UConn took in more than $1 million in royalties from its licensed merchandise in the past year, jumping into the top 25 highest-earning schools. That list is led by the universities of North Carolina, Michigan, Texas and Notre Dame.

At a factory in Torreon, Mexico, that makes apparel for about 20 schools, workers interviewed by the Courant described conditions that appear to violate Mexican labor laws: forced overtime, wages that are a fraction of the legal rate, withheld severance pay and terminations of those who agitate for better conditions.

Employees at the Liga Mayor factory, who produced UConn sweatshirts earlier this year, work a 48-hour week but are often forced to stay longer to meet strict production quotas.

At an hourly rate of 10.4 pesos, or 91 cents, they earn about $43 a week - less than half of what labor groups say is the minimum needed to support a family.

Although the university movement forced image-conscious brands such as Nike, GEAR for Sports and Russell to develop ``codes of conduct'' promising that factories would pay workers the prevailing wage, compensate them for overtime and allow them to form unions, the schools have held the brands to those codes at only a tiny fraction of factories.

Collegiate apparel accounts for just 2 percent of U.S. clothing sales, but activists say its high visibility gives schools unmatched clout.

``This was a targeted effort in a specific market, where you had purchasers who could provide some real leverage,'' Miller said.

As the sweatshop issue languishes on campuses where it once spurred activism, conditions are about to get far worse for garment workers, potentially wiping out the few gains that the movement has made.

In just three weeks, global rules governing apparel production will be changed, allowing U.S. companies to move more business to China, which has one of the worst labor rights records in the world.

Some experts say if the universities are ever going to assert themselves, it should be now.

``If one could create a market for higher standards in the industry, it's going to be in the collegiate market, where you have brands that want to protect the value of their names,'' said Gary Gereffi, a Duke University professor who studies the apparel industry.

Using an agent such as the Collegiate Licensing Co., universities contract with dozens of brands, which then turn over production to more than 6,000 factories scattered throughout the Third World.

The limitations of the university movement are discouraging to those who recall the nationwide energy that fueled it. At Duke, students took over the president's office for 31 hours. Undergraduates at Purdue University went on an 11-day hunger strike.

Protesters at the University of Oregon camped and marched in front of Johnson Hall. The issue came to a head when UO President Dave Frohnmayer agreed in April 2000 that the university would join the Worker Rights Consortium. But when Nike Chairman Phil Knight responded angrily and vowed to halt sizable donations to the university, the UO backed off from its affiliation with the labor rights group.

But out of the protests came some gains that endure today. Most major college brands, including Nike, Champion and Lee Sport, agreed to disclose the locations of the factories they were using to produce logoed goods.

They also adopted the codes of conduct barring child labor and sexual harassment, guaranteeing workers the right to form unions, and setting minimum standards for wages and maximum limits on hours of work.

``The whole idea of codes of conduct was viewed as unbelievably radical at the time,'' said Scott Nova, director of the Worker Rights Consortium.

But most workers still sew $40 sweatshirts for pennies a garment - a small percentage of the $1.20 or more that universities receive in royalties.

``The workers don't even try to unionize anymore. They are afraid of being abused and fired, with no one to protect them,'' said Benjamin Cuellar, director of the Institute for Human Rights at the University of Central America in El Salvador.

Nearly every factory inspection in the past three years has found serious violations of workers' rights.

A May 2003 inspection of an Adidas plant in China found employees who had worked two months straight without a day off.

That July, a review of a factory in India that produces for Lee Sport, found that female workers were coerced into having sex with managers in exchange for shorter hours and lower production quotas.

``The trend right now is: Countries are scared, workers are scared,'' said Bob Jeffcott of the Toronto-based Maquila Solidarity Network, which lobbies for workers at garment assembly plants.

Back in April, Nova had appealed to colleges to take ``meaningful action'' to mitigate the move to China, where forced overtime, illegally low wages and a disregard for worker safety are commonplace. He suggested as one option that universities instruct their suppliers not to shift production to China.

So far, only Duke and the University of Wisconsin have taken that stand.