U bookstore lacks ethical apparel

 

More than a decade’s worth of hard work, courage and heart from garment workers worldwide and students from United Students Against Sweatshops has paid off with the debut of Alta Gracia — a living-wage, union apparel project based in Villa Altagracia, Dominican Republic that sews hoodies and tees for over 400 college campuses.

After spending last fall semester interning alongside the inspiring men and women union leaders that work there, I will never look at a sweatshirt again without thinking of the hands that may have stitched on my University of Minnesota logo. I learned that many garment workers producing our University apparel in other factories face serious safety hazards on the job, sexual harassment and discrimination. They experience threats like job loss or worse if they try to fight back for things like water breaks. This is not the case at the Alta Gracia factory, where workers are treated with respect, negotiate their own working hours and are paid a living-wage that is more than three times the local prevailing wage.

For more than two years now, students have been calling on the University bookstore to source a meaningful level of Alta Gracia instead of sweatshop brands, with little results. Last year, thanks to efforts led by student activist group Minnesota Public Interest Research Group, the bookstore began sourcing a token amount of Alta Gracia. But when it quickly sold out, the bookstore has made no further effort to stock or support Alta Gracia.

Frustrated with the lack of support, a growing coalition of more than 20 student groups, ranging from the Omega Nu Alpha fraternity and Amnesty International to Biology Club have signed on to an endorsement asking the bookstore to make at least $300,000 of Alta Gracia orders available. With such a diverse base of supporters, an increased order of Alta Gracia is pretty much guaranteed to sell. So far, this request has been ignored. It’s hard to understand the bookstore’s opposition to source this positive brand.

As verified on a weekly basis by WRC, workers at Alta Gracia enjoy respect at work and a voice on the job through the representation of an independent union. The factory enjoys top health and safety conditions. This is nearly unheard of in an industry where, because of steep production demands, it is common to deny workers bathroom breaks, fire women for being pregnant or lock workers in ill-ventilated factories overnight to finish rush orders.

In a meeting with students before spring break, University bookstore apparel buyer Connie Monnier stated she didn’t feel the need to order Alta Gracia at the level other schools have seen success with, though she could give no compelling rationale as to why. There’s also a legal precedent for Alta Gracia. The University’s Code of Conduct states that the University should source apparel that upholds workers’ rights and pays living-wages. This isn’t the only aspect of the bookstore’s business that is in violation of University standards at the moment. Currently, Nike and Adidas are implicated in an ongoing wage-theft violation where workers in the PT Kizone factory in Indonesia are owed more than $1.8 million.

Students have been more than reasonable in requesting Alta Gracia and building a coalition of support over the last two years. It is unreasonable for the bookstore to continue sourcing brands that abuse human rights when a better option is available at no added cost. It is unfortunate that they are choosing to work against us rather than with us toward this achievable goal.

Human dignity has no price. Therefore, there is no excuse for not taking action to support human rights when given the option. I hope students will consider joining the Minnesota Coalition Against Sweatshops in our next steps to call on the bookstore to source Alta Gracia. Alta Gracia is the result of workers and students organizing together to shape the garment industry for the better.