This article is from the archives of the UB Reporter.

Forum tackles sweatshop issue

Published: November 18, 2004

Reporter Contributor

More than 100 students, faculty and staff attended an open forum on worker rights issues last week to hear representatives from the Fair Labor Association (FLA) and the Worker Rights Consortium (WRC) speak about the treatment of workers by overseas clothing manufacturers and how to ensure humane treatment of workers producing collegiate apparel.

UB's Students Against Sweatshops, the Division of Student Affairs and the UB Sweatshop Advisory Committee sponsored the event.

Kathy Stevens, the university liaison for the FLA, explained the purpose and practice of the non-profit organization. The group works with non-governmental organizations, major companies like Nike, Reebok and Liz Claiborne, and more than 181 colleges and universities nationwide to promote an adherence to international labor standards and improve working conditions worldwide.

The group urges factories both in the U.S. and overseas to develop a code of conduct and internal monitoring systems, as well as allow independent monitoring from the FLA and other outside groups. The FLA also compiles and publicizes reports on disputes within factories, and develops new approaches for factories to monitor their work situations.

Stevens described the process by explaining a recent investigation of an Eddie Bauer factory in China. The factory was allowing the workers to work excessive hours without paying them overtime. Some overtime is allowed, but the factory was going over the set overtime rules, she said.

Stevens also noted factories where the process was working, such as at an Adidas and Nike plant in Honduras.

"This worked at an exemplary level," Stevens said "The management created a committee of workers for internal compliance. Who knows what's best for workers but themselves?"

Scott Nova, executive director of the WRC, also spoke at the forum, urging UB to join the WRC, which promotes U.S. trade policies making human rights, worker rights and environmental protection central priorities.

Nova began by asking audience members to take a look at a piece of their clothing and check the label to see where it was made. Responses such as Taiwan, Mexico, Hong Kong, Canada and the United States streamed out from the audience.

Nova explained how more than 100 different countries export apparel to the U.S., stressing that the industry is truly global. He said that very few major manufacturers actually owned their own factories, but contracted jobs out to production companies in other countries at a cheaper price.

"Nike doesn't make clothes," Nova said. "They make commercials and image."

Nova said that there are more factories than "manufacturers," allowing for extremely intense competition that results in low wages and harsher labor conditions for workers.

Nova called the Third World labor industry a "culture of lawlessness."

"On paper the laws are there, just as strong or stronger than the U.S.," he said. "But there really is no enforcement or government authority to hold these factories accountable."

In this instance, he asked, "Is a company responsible for the conditions of a factory when they don't own it?"

Ultimately, consumer concerns overrode this issue and the answer became yes, Nova said.

Nova explained that the collegiate sector of the international apparel industry is worth more than $3 billion annually due to the popularity of college sports.

"Clothing is not made by the universities," he said. "There is no factory at the end of campus."

The anti-sweatshop movement began in the mid-1990s when student activists began questioning the conditions in the factories where university apparel was manufactured. Students argued that there was a bond between the clothing, the university and the workers, he said. Universities did not want to be affiliated with sub-standard working conditions, making university support a powerful tool in the anti-sweatshop movement—particularly when they are affiliated with major companies such as Nike.

Forum organizers are seeking to gain student and faculty support for UB to join the WRC to ensure that workers making UB apparel are treated fairly and humanely. Pre-printed letters addressed to President John B. Simpson asking that UB join the WRC were available for members of the audience to sign.

Both Nova and Stevens pushed for acceptance by the factories of a "freedom of association" code allowing workers to organize for their rights. They acknowledged that many workers are fired or even arrested if they attempt any type of organization.

"Organization can bring about a real transformation," Nova said. "Adoption of a piece of paper (codes of conduct) can actually have a profound impact on the factory."