Sweatshop task force looks into coalition

Rob Kuznia

Three years ago, Regent Bill Peterson saw a Gophers’ sweater in a bookstore that was manufactured in Thailand. Aware that many apparel factories in countries like Thailand employed workers under inhumane conditions, Peterson was appalled.
“I was really disturbed we were selling garments at the U which were more than likely the product of slave labor,” he said.
Peterson voiced his concern to then-president Nils Hasselmo. Soon after, current University President Mark Yudof took office and started a sweatshop task force, Peterson said.
On May 18, 21 months after Yudof began his presidency, the task force convened for the first time to discuss joining the Fair Labor Association, an anti-sweatshop coalition that monitors and tests companies for fair labor conditions.
“I’m happy to see that the issue is finally coming to fruition,” Peterson said.
But student and faculty activists from various organizations like the Farmworkers Action Network, the Committee for Peace and Justice and the University Coalition for Labor Rights say joining the FLA would do nothing but create the illusion of improvement.
“To call it the ‘Fair Labor Association’ is literally a lie,” said Drew Hempel, a graduate student and member of UCLR. “The name is a euphemism for its opposite. If the administration has any sense of reason, they will not only refuse to join, but will put out a statement condemning it.”
For several weeks, UCLR has held meetings at La Raza Student Cultural Center every Wednesday to discuss ways to prevent the FLA signing.
According to a recent New York Times report, protesters from at least 20 universities around the nation have denounced the FLA, deeming it a public relations coverup.
Students at several institutions like Duke and the University of Wisconsin-Madison — where protesters held a 97-hour sit-in at the chancellor’s building — have managed to persuade their administrators to either refuse to sign the agreement or add amendments to the existing one.
Students at campuses across the country have proposed at alternative to the FLA. Instead of joining the association, students are calling for universities to draft a code of conduct for all licensed apparel.
The basis of this code would force manufacturers — companies like Champion, Russell and GEAR for Sports, which all hold licenses with the University and have come under fire for using sweatshop labor — to fully disclose the locations of their factories. Currently, U.S. corporations are not required to disclose the precise locations of foreign factories.
Also, the code would call for companies not just to pay employees minimum wage, but to pay them a livable wage. In some developing countries like Mexico, minimum wage is four times less than the livable wage, Weiss said.
Since the birth of the FLA this November, association members like Nike have approached many universities throughout the nation in hopes of getting the schools to sign on. As of now, at least 17 schools have done so.
In 1996, the Clinton administration formed the White House Apparel Industry Partnership task force. The task force aimed to eliminate sweatshops through a partnership of apparel companies, labor unions and religious groups.
For two years, the partnership made virtually no progress. But this November, a subcommittee formed the Fair Labor Association to deal with issues like child labor, mandatory overtime and abusive manager-employee relations in the factories of many developing countries producing garments for companies like Nike, Reebok and Liz Claiborne.
While many such companies joined the FLA, several partnership members pulled out. Two unions — UNITE! and the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union — as well as a religious group called the Interfaith Center For Corporate Responsibility, refused to sign the agreement because it did little to solve the sweatshop problem, the groups said in a joint statement to the White House.
FLA opponents maintain the association allows workers to be paid below poverty wages, allows for excessive hours of mandatory overtime — up to 60 hours — and allows for 14-year-old girls to be hired. They also claim it doesn’t adequately uphold the right of workers to form unions.
Furthermore, according to a documentary produced by the National Labor Committee titled “Zoned for Slavery,” the FLA does not ensure that women’s rights will not be violated.
For instance, factories in places like Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador compel women workers to take birth control pills to avoid production slow-downs resulting from pregnancies. If women do get pregnant, many factories will administer abortion shots, the documentary said.
“The Fair Labor plan is nothing but a PR coverup, because no substantive changes have occurred as a result,” said Larry Weiss, a member of the Resource Center of the Americas.
Weiss has met with University activists like Hempel, the University task force’s only student representative. Other task force members include several members of the general counsel like Mark Rotenberg, Nancy Hoyt and Bill Hinks.
When the task force met to discuss joining the FLA on May 18, Hempel said that some members of the task force were shocked that many labor unions are opposed to the FLA.
“(Hoyt) had probably either just read the literature or had talked to someone like Nike, whom had said ‘here you go, you don’t have to do too much,'” Weiss said. “Joining the FLA is an attractive option, especially when you have a million other things to do.”
Hoyt, however, said Nike hadn’t contacted the University, and she had known about the FLA for some time before the meeting.
“I think Larry must be speculating,” Hoyt said. “This is an issue that people have been well aware of.”