The University of Minnesota prides itself on its sustainable and human rights-based initiatives, but supplies its bookstore and athletics department with University apparel that is created in sweatshops.
I am thankful the University is considerate of the sourcing of the products students put into their bodies. The University has fair trade coffee, tea and organic and locally grown food. Still, itâÄôs time to look at whatâÄôs going on outside the University.
The initial shock factor of hearing Nike and sweatshop being used in the same sentence should have worn off. The worldâÄôs largest sports apparel corporation started getting pummeled in the 1990s because of its low wages and unfair working conditions. It continues to be on critical radar of many universities, NGOs and concerned citizens.
Currently, the University has a contract with Nike. All athletes are to wear football helmets, jerseys, volleyball pads, shoes and other gear bearing the swoosh. We receive millions of dollars in free merchandise in return. University bookstores and GoldyâÄôs Locker Room are also overflowing with Nike products. (Full disclosure: I am a track athlete at the University.)
Though Nike is starting to improve its working conditions for overseas employees, there is so much that occurs when the men in suits with clipboards arenâÄôt watching 364 days of the year.
Nike closed several of its factories in Honduras without paying 1,800 workers $2.6 million in severance payments. While these workers were hired, they claimed they were denied pay for overtime work and given unsuitable wages to afford medical care. These were some of the acts that caused the University of Wisconsin to sever its ties with Nike last April.
Like the University of Wisconsin and other Big Ten schools, the University of Minnesota needs to be more observant and act aggressively on the actions of their apparel sources.
Last year, Russell Athletic fired 1,200 employees after attempting to unionize at a factory in Honduras. Though the University was aware of this maltreatment for at least four months, it only took action after students started trouble through protesting. Students should not have to serve as the watchdogs of University apparel sourcing.
To ensure the University is truly supporting global human rights, I have two suggestions.
First, the University can build contracts from transparent companies that provide workers enough in salaries to allow children to go to school, buy groceries and visit the doctorâÄôs office from time to time. Alta Garcia is one of these responsible companies. Though there are currently two products of Alta Garcia at the University bookstore, there are still more than 50 Russell products.
Also, the University can commit to the Designated Suppliers Program. This is an agreement that requires University licensed apparel to come from factories that are in compliance with specific human rights standards. If the University doesnâÄôt want to invest in the resources of monitoring, this program also provides lists of factories that fit DSP standards.
Instead of the University conveniently glancing away from labor abuse, these actions will engage athletic apparel corporations and inspire other campuses to be responsible for their apparel sourcing.
Oh, and also provide life support to thousands of third-world factory workers.
Jayme Dittmar welcomes comments
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