Collegiate apparel sweatshops under fire

Andy Skemp

From Champion brand T-shirts made in Mexico to Jansport windbreakers made in Thailand, garments brandishing the University of Minnesota logo come in many shapes and from many different countries.
But two national organizations have been questioning whether some collegiate apparel is manufactured in sweatshops — factories where workers assemble clothing under exploitive conditions.
The University of Wisconsin-Madison and Duke University have adopted agreements to monitor foreign apparel companies.
Although the University considered a similar agreement last year, it currently employs no policy to monitor the manufacture of its apparel.
Last week, a crowd of 200 students, including two from the University, met on the front steps of the U.S. Department of Labor building in Washington, D.C., to protest President Clinton’s Fair Labor Association, an anti-sweatshop coalition that monitors companies for fair labor conditions.
United Students Against Sweatshops, a national coalition of college students that organized the protest, argued that neither the labor association nor any government agency requires U.S. companies to disclose the locations of their facilities abroad.
According to USAS, the availability of such information would allow government monitors to verify that manufacturers are treating workers according to international human rights standards. These standards include a living wage, eight-hour shifts and health insurance.
Rana Kasich, a University Chicano studies and political science major, and Amber Schmidt, a College of Liberal Arts senior, attended the USAS protest and the following three-day conference in Maryland.
Kasich said the conference was draining but rewarding, as the coalition discussed future goals and internal structure, governance and policy.
“We stayed up until four in the morning, but the time was well-spent,” she said.
This spring, Kasich participated in the first meeting of a University sweatshop task force made up of students, faculty members and representatives from local non-government organizations. They met for the first time in May when participants discussed what sort of policy should be adopted at the University.
Kasich said she hopes the University will contract a sweatshop-free policy, which she believes the Fair Labor Association cannot truly offer.
Bob Hicks, director of University licensing and athletic properties, was not available for comment.
Though the University lists 279 apparel and merchandise manufacturing companies, no policy has been developed to monitor manufacturers.
Last year, a Salvadorian worker named Julia Esmeralda Pleites gave a public testimony of her experiences working at Formosa Textiles factory in El Salvador. Pleites made Nike and Adidas shirts.
In a written statement, Pleites described how workers were forced to work unpaid weekends and overtime. She said workers lived with a “constant cold” from dust in the factory, suffered dehydration from the heat, and were screamed at and beaten by supervisors.
Though the University contracted Nike to make the hockey team’s jerseys for next year, Jeff Schemmel, associate department director of men’s athletics at the University, said the jerseys were made in the United States.
“Our department would not endorse unfair labor standards,” Schemmel said.
Local retail stores such as Gold Country and the Student Book Store also sell apparel with the University logo.
Troy Amundson, general manager of Gold Country, said he had no knowledge of Nike apparel being manufactured in sweatshops. He did say that if he discovered such a thing, he would try to do something about it.
“It’s tough to get away from (Nike), because they are one of the biggest market suppliers,” said Amundson. “I wish we offered more from them because that is what everyone is asking for.”
However, a Nike representative denied Pleite’s allegations Wednesday.
“We want to have the best working conditions in the world,” said Simon Pestridge, a Nike labor practice unit employee.
“We will not participate with companies that do business involving poor conditions,” he said.
Pestridge said Nike doesn’t publicize its foreign manufacturing locations at the request of their business partners who don’t want information on business contracts to go public.
Mieke Vandersall, outreach coordinator for the National Labor Committee, claims that such explanations are only excuses.
“It’s how the industry is constructed. Until companies release the names and addresses of where their goods are manufactured, it’s hard to prove that there’s any violations.”