Sunday, December 12, 2004

Let the World see Good American Deeds and Philanthropy


As Colleges Profit, Sweatshops Worsen

December 12, 2004

(pictures for post on

At factories across the globe, young women hunch over sewing machines in choreographed monotony, racing the clock for poverty wages as they stitch shirts that will be shipped to the States and emblazoned with five letters: U-C-O-N-N

Five years ago, academic leaders across the country pledged to wage war against the sweatshops that produce college-licensed apparel, propelled by a student protest movement that swept campuses with a passion not seen since the 1960s. Among those leaders was University of Connecticut President Philip Austin, whose strong words drew wide attention.

"We have all heard about the sweatshop conditions that exist in too many factories around the world," Austin said.

"The University of Connecticut wants no part of that."

But today, the $20 T-shirts and $40 sweat shirts that bear the logos of UConn and other major universities are sewn under conditions that are as dismal as those that prompted the pledges - and rapidly getting worse.

Despite their bold rhetoric, university officials have largely watched from the sidelines as factory workers in the $3 billion-a-year college apparel market have lost ground in a global race to the bottom.

Real wages, the major focus of the anti-sweatshop movement, have actually declined in many poor countries. Union organizing drives, another linchpin, have met with greater resistance than ever by factory owners and foreign governments.

Although the university movement forced image-conscious brands such as Nike, GEAR for Sports and Russell to develop "codes of conduct" that set minimum standards for wages and working conditions, the schools have held the brands to those codes at only a tiny fraction of their more than 6,000 factories - with mixed results.

Collegiate apparel accounts for just 2 percent of U.S. clothing sales, but activists say its high visibility gives schools unmatched clout. Some pioneers in the campus anti-sweatshop movement are frustrated that many schools have squandered their influence.

"These are not institutions that should be associated with human misery," said U.S. Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., who was the first chairman of a university anti-sweatshop coalition called the Worker Rights Consortium."

This was a targeted effort in a specific market, where you had purchasers who could provide some real leverage.

"University presidents and chancellors and boards of regents will have to rediscover their ethics ... and show licensees that they will be held accountable."

The Worker Rights Consortium counts 131 dues-paying colleges as affiliates. But those who follow the movement say there are now only half a dozen schools that are actively pushing the fight against sweatshops.

UConn, once praised for its anti-sweatshop efforts, isn't on that list, even as its ties to the global sweatshop economy grow deeper. With its dual NCAA basketball championships and upgraded football program, the university sold $21 million in licensed merchandise in 2003-04 and took in more than $1 million in royalties, jumping into the top 25 highest-earning schools.

Austin, in a recent interview, acknowledged that UConn's involvement in the sweatshop issue has faded.

"Like any other issue, when the issue is on fire, you monitor it. And then you put in place processes and steps and procedures that ensure that when you're not looking every minute, somebody is watching it," he said.

"So we spend less time in this office and at this university being directly involved."

Told of concerns that most collegiate apparel workers still labor in sweatshops, Austin acknowledged there is more work to be done, but said he was under the impression that conditions had "improved mightily."

As the sweatshop issue languishes on once-active campuses, conditions are about to get far worse, potentially wiping out the gains that the movement has made.In just three weeks, global rules governing apparel production will be changed, allowing U.S. companies to move more business to China, which has one of the worst labor rights records in the world. Already, some other apparel-producing countries have moved to cut wages and weaken labor laws in order to remain attractive to U.S. brands.

Some experts say if the universities are ever going to assert themselves, it should be now."If one could create a market for higher standards in the industry, it's going to be in the collegiate market, where you have brands that want to protect the value of their names," said Gary Gereffi, a Duke University professor who studies the apparel industry.

"What you can hope is that there's a concerted effort, among colleges and other groups, to pressure the brands to take the high road."

Problems EverywhereThe Chinese have a word for it: guolaosi.

It means "overwork death."A month ago, when a young woman working 12-hour shifts for 13 straight days at a textile factory in Nanjing died of exhaustion, doctors declared her the latest victim of guolaosi.

It is a stark example of how bleak conditions remain for sweatshop workers all over the world. In Mexico and Central America, garment workers are routinely fired if they try to unionize. In Sri Lanka, they face intimidation and violence. In Bangladesh, young female workers endure verbal and sexual harassment and abuse from bosses.

"The industry at large continues to have problems everywhere we look - on wages, on overtime, on health and safety," said Dara O'Rourke, a professor at the University of California at Berkeley who has studied apparel factories in Central America and Asia.

"Overwhelmingly, the industry is still operating in what we would think of as a sweatshop model."

For collegiate apparel and other merchandise, universities are several steps removed from the factories that produce the goods bearing their names. Using an agent such as the Collegiate Licensing Co., they contract with dozens of brands, which then turn over production to thousands of factories scattered throughout the Third World.UConn alone farms out its logo to 311 licensees, which produce goods in more than 2,500 factories, more than a third of them in Asia. Much of the school's apparel is made in Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.

It is the factories themselves that the universities pledged to target five years ago, by working with the brands. But many say the universities' efforts so far have been inadequate, with verifiable success stories in fewer than a dozen plants.

"To tell you the truth, it's less than a drop in the bucket," said Ginny Coughlin, a textile union organizer who is credited with recruiting students to the sweatshop cause.

"It's such a small portion of even just the college logo market. It's not significant, other than for symbolic value."

The limitations of the university movement are discouraging to those who recall the nationwide energy that fueled it. Beginning in the late 1990s, students across the country seized on the notion that their schools should demand minimum workplace standards for the companies peddling their logos.

At Duke, students took over the president's office for 31 hours. At Purdue University, they went on an 11-day hunger strike. Prodded by U.S. textile unions, an umbrella group called United Students Against Sweatshops formed local chapters on scores of campuses.

Out of the protests came several key gains that endure today. Most major college brands, including Nike, Champion and Lee Sport, agreed to disclose the locations of the factories they were using to produce logoed goods. They also adopted codes of conduct barring child labor and sexual harassment, and insisting that factories pay workers the prevailing wage, compensate them for overtime and allow them to form unions.

Activists viewed the breakthroughs as critical to improving the wages and conditions of workers.

"The whole idea of codes of conduct was viewed as unbelievably radical at the time," said Scott Nova, director of the Worker Rights Consortium.

"The thought was, brands would never take responsibility for their suppliers."

But while companies boast about their tough codes, conditions in most factories are unchanged or worse, experts acknowledge. Workers in many countries still sew $40 sweat shirts for pennies a garment - a small percentage of the $1.20 or more that universities receive in royalties - and those pennies buy less and less.

"My impression is, wages have continued to decline since China joined the [World Trade Organization] in 2001," said Richard Appelbaum, a University of California at Santa Barbara professor who studies the apparel industry.In Mexico, wages for apparel workers have remained generally flat since the late 1990s, while inflation has jumped more than 50 percent.

In Bangladesh, Indonesia, Vietnam and Pakistan, workers still subsist on less than 50 cents an hour, while prices have jumped 20 percent or more in the past several years.

There have been similar setbacks in labor union organizing. In Mexico and El Salvador, workers in just two of the more than 800 garment factories have secured independent union contracts, and only after major international labor campaigns.

Meanwhile, all around them, other factories throughout Mexico and Central America have fired union organizers or simply shut down in the midst of union drives as governments pull back from enforcing labor laws, workers' advocates say.

"The workers don't even try to unionize anymore. They are afraid of being abused and fired, with no one to protect them," said Benjamin Cuellar, director of the Institute for Human Rights at the University of Central America in El Salvador.

Although there has been progress in the garment industry against child labor and prison labor, nearly every inspection of a factory in the past three years has found serious violations of workers' rights.

A May 2003 inspection of an Adidas plant in China found employees who had worked two months straight without a day off. That July, a review of a factory in India that produces for Lee Sport found that female workers were coerced into having sex with managers in exchange for shorter hours and lower production quotas and that both male and female workers were slapped for making mistakes.

Experts say much of the downward pressure on wages and the lax enforcement of labor laws can be blamed on the coming shift of work to China, which is expected to vastly increase its U.S. apparel business in 2005, when country-by-country limits on garment imports are lifted.

The governments of some nations already are taking steps to remain competitive. The Philippines is moving to exempt apparel manufacturers from the country's minimum-wage law and the Sri Lankan government has loosened restrictions on overtime and made it easier for employers to fire workers.

"The trend right now is: countries are scared, workers are scared," said Bob Jeffcott of the Toronto-based Maquila Solidarity Network, which lobbies for workers.

"The concern is, this whole period is going to result in a lowering of standards worldwide."

Back in April, Nova, of the Worker Rights Consortium, had appealed to colleges to take "meaningful action" to mitigate the move to China, where forced overtime, illegally low wages and a disregard for worker safety are commonplace. Warning that the upheaval could be severe enough to "wipe out the positive changes we have seen in recent years," he suggested as one option that universities instruct their suppliers not to shift production to China.

So far, only two schools - Duke University and the University of Wisconsin - have taken that stand.

Monitoring The FactoriesU.S. universities stepped into a void in government regulation five years ago when they accepted responsibility for policing sweatshops.

Appalling conditions in the global apparel industry were making headlines, but neither the White House nor Congress had any interest in legislating workplace standards for goods imported by powerful U.S. brands.

Instead, a Clinton administration initiative led to the creation of the Fair Labor Association, a partnership between universities and brand-name apparel makers who pledged to crack down on sweatshops. In response, student activists helped create the Worker Rights Consortium, which excluded industry participation and promised universities more objective monitoring of factories.

Today, in sheer numbers, the university movement is massive. Nearly 250 colleges belong to either the labor association or the consortium; some belong to both. But a review of efforts by the two groups and interviews with experts indicate that the universities' war on sweatshops has produced little in the way of real, verifiable improvements for workers.

The Fair Labor Association includes 34 major brands and more than 1,000 smaller licensees, as well as more than 175 schools, including Yale University, Trinity College and Connecticut College.

The association uses outside auditors to inspect factories for compliance with codes of conduct. But less than 5 percent of a company's plants are inspected each year, and in published reports of those audits, the association keeps secret the names of the factories, making it impossible to verify conditions.

The association itself has acknowledged that its outside monitors are underreporting factory problems, even after reforms stopped brands from directly hiring and paying monitors.

"The FLA recognizes that there is a continued need to improve the quality of monitoring," the group wrote in its annual report in August.

"Based on experiences in factories, it is apparent that the FLA findings related to Code provisions ... do not mirror the realities on the ground."

And while the Fair Labor Association requires companies to perform internal inspections on all of their plants once a year, the association never sees a report on those audits, and critics have little faith in the ability of cost-conscious brands to honestly police their own factories.

"Self-monitoring, for the most part, has not been successful in protecting workers' rights to free association or raising wages above the minimum required by law," said Jill Esbenshade, a San Diego State University professor who has written a book about sweatshop monitoring and serves on the Worker Rights Consortium's board.

Despite the concerns, the labor association has forged ahead with a plan to certify manufacturers as essentially sweatshop-free after two or three years of monitoring. Last April, Reebok became the first company to earn the certification, even though independent inspectors have never seen more than 90 percent of the company's factories.

Anne Lally, outreach coordinator for the labor association, said the group is serious about ending sweatshop labor and has made important strides in building a process that holds brands accountable. But she also acknowledges that the issue is more daunting than anyone expected.

"When everybody set out to do this, it was sort of: Let's find the problems and then they'll fix themselves," she said.

"And what we've definitely all learned, and I think especially the leaders in this field - they're all abundantly aware now of how complex this stuff is."

Victories And Setbacks

The Worker Rights Consortium, established in 2000, also has relied on factory monitoring to fight sweatshops, but uses independent groups with ties to workers for its in-depth inspections.

When it finds violations, the group pressures brands to fix them, aiming to keep the factories open with better working conditions.

In its four years, the consortium has completed inspections of 14 factories, while intervening less formally in a number of other labor struggles.

Early on, the consortium saw a string of victories. At the BJ&B cap factory in the Dominican Republic, a supplier to Nike and Reebok, university intervention was critical in helping more than 1,500 workers unionize and negotiate a contract that provided raises and other benefits.

The independent union was among the largest in the free-trade zone of Central America and the Caribbean.At the Kukdong garment factory in Mexico in 2001, the consortium uncovered serious violations of workers' rights, including verbal and physical abuse and child labor, and worked with Nike to establish the first independent union in Mexico's garment-assembly plants.

Three more victories - one in the U.S., one in El Salvador and one in Indonesia - followed.But in the past 18 months, some of the consortium's efforts have unraveled. Three factories that it targeted closed down, ignoring appeals from the consortium to stay open and make improvements. Meanwhile, owners of the Dominican cap factory have rebuffed the workers' union and begun mass layoffs, while maintaining employment levels at their nonunion factories.

Now, as brands increasingly look to cut costs, the consortium finds itself trying to protect the few factories where it has helped to improve working conditions. Nova warns that those factories could be "especially vulnerable" to closure because of their higher labor costs.

While Nova cast university intervention as a powerful tool to improve conditions in specific factories, he acknowledged that the effort had not produced broader gains on wages or working conditions.

"We talk to the brands all the time about how these codes of conduct are not worth the paper they're printed on if workers are not making enough to live on," he said.

"We're not there yet in achieving that."

Industry experts note that the consortium's victories have had none of the hoped-for ripple effect. Kukdong, for example, remains the only garment assembly plant in Mexico with an independent union.

Appelbaum, the University of California professor, credited the consortium with "raising awareness" of sweatshops and "achieving transparency" from brands. But that hasn't changed the industry's dynamics.

"Apart from these isolated cases, there's no evidence, even in the college-apparel sector, that the [monitoring] effort has made a difference," he said.

The key tools of that monitoring effort - factory disclosure and codes of conduct - have fallen short. More than half of the consortium schools still don't know where their goods are being produced.

Most factories are governed by multiple codes of conduct. At the Woo Chang factory in Mexico, for example, Nike has produced goods as recently as July for UConn and 30 other universities, according to the consortium's database. Workers' rights are protected by at least three codes - those of Nike, the consortium and the Collegiate Licensing Co.

Still, a year ago, the factory terminated more than 100 workers after they went on strike over the factory's failure to pay overtime wages and legally mandated bonuses, local news reports said. Today, workers continue to complain about being shortchanged.

On its website, Nike posts a strict code of conduct protecting workers' rights. But the company adds a disclaimer: "With multiple brands and 30 schools, how many codes of conduct can one factory adhere to?"

Some say the proliferation of codes of conduct falsely eases the conscience of consumers. The codes of all consortium schools and major brands include protections of workers' rights to unionize - but virtually all do business with China, which bars independent unions.

Others say the reliance on voluntary codes diverts attention from the need for stronger global enforcement of labor laws."The effort is not substantial enough to create lasting improvements without other forces, like trade agreements and government regulations," Esbenshade said.

UConn And Activism

While many university administrations joined the anti-sweatshop movement only after months of student protests, Austin was ahead of the curve, appointing a special Task Force on College Licensing Issues in September 1999.

He pledged that the university would use its "influence and economic power to promote fundamental concepts of workplace equity" and ensure that factory workers were afforded not only basic legal protections but a sufficient "living wage."

Despite Austin's strong statements, task force member Katherine Harnois, a 2000 UConn graduate, could not shake the suspicion that the university administration wasn't honestly committed to the issue.

"I think it was largely a committee formed to shut us up and make it look like something was happening," she said in a recent interview.

In early 2000, Austin praised the task force for its work and announced that UConn would require its licensees to disclose factory locations and abide by a strong code of conduct. At his direction, UConn also became a founding member of the consortium and an active participant.

But in the years since, the university's high profile has vanished. The task force is gone, and the school is no longer considered among the core group of committed colleges - Georgetown University, Duke, the University of Michigan and others - that activists rely on to sustain the movement.

"I wouldn't say that the university as the whole, the administration, had a very strong commitment to being sweat-free," said Leonard Krimerman, a retired philosophy professor who tried unsuccessfully two years ago to bring a line of "no-sweat" clothes to the UConn Co-op.

"[Austin] made some statements, but he didn't back them up by any real action."

But others say Austin did no less than leaders of many other big-name schools, who touted membership in the consortium as fulfilling their commitment to fight sweatshops.

"The student pressure pushed a number of universities to join a couple different systems for codes and monitoring," said O'Rourke, of Berkeley. "

And most universities have assumed that by joining, they've done what they need to do.

"Austin said that he has relied on the consortium and the Collegiate Licensing Co. to pursue the school's anti-sweatshop principles and that he believes the effort has forced major apparel brands to make broad changes in their factories."

I'm under the impression that things have improved mightily and that people understand that they're being watched," he said.

Tim Tolokan, who handles licensing issues for UConn, said he thought the consortium's work had slowed down, even as Nova and board members say it is tackling more and more challenges.

"The last year, year and a half, have been very quiet - at least from my front," Tolokan said.

"With the full disclosure now, it's my opinion - and again, I'm on a campus here so I'm not out there in that Third World country - but I think most companies treat [decent working conditions] as a cost of doing business."

But some other universities have continued to carry the sweatshop fight forward, pressing licensees to improve conditions in factories targeted by the consortium and taking their own steps to ensure that their codes of conduct are being enforced.

In 2000, officials at the University of Notre Dame directed companies not to use any factories in China to produce their licensed merchandise because of that country's prohibition on independent unions.

"From our perspective, if you don't have buy-in on at least the fundamental right of free association, then it's hard to advance labor conditions at all," said William Hoye, a Notre Dame law professor and deputy general counsel.

UConn suppliers use about 300 factories in mainland China.

Over the years, officials of Georgetown, Duke, the University of North Carolina and other universities have taken strong steps to pressure licensees to correct factory violations, at one point terminating a contract with a New York cap maker accused of retaliating against its union.

Recently, Georgetown and the University of Wisconsin began pushing their top licensees to disclose wages at every factory producing university merchandise. Their codes call for companies to pay at least the prevailing industry wage to workers.

"We can't tell if they're complying with the code unless we know what they are paying," said Doug Shaw, an aide to the president at Georgetown and a member of the school's licensing oversight committee.

Some question why the university coalition has not exercised its collective power by issuing joint challenges to apparel makers or lobbying as a group for industry changes. Miller, the congressman, said that he had expected schools would "speak as a group" and that their insistence on autonomy may have hurt the effort.

"The politics of university life can be as complex as the politics of politics," he said.In most cases, schools that have taken extra steps, such as pushing for wage disclosure, have done so after urging from student activist groups. But on most campuses, the sweatshop issue receded soon after the creation of the consortium.

United Students Against Sweatshops still claims affiliates on more than 150 campuses, but it has become a catch-all labor-rights group, taking up the cause of tomato pickers, janitors, dining-hall employees and even mailroom employees at The Washington Post.

Some workers' advocates say the turnover of students and college administrators has hurt the sweatshop movement.

"When I talked with students, one of the things I said is, you have got to bring the younger folks on," said Sister Ruth Rosenbaum of the Center for Reflection, Education and Action in Hartford.

"And that's the piece that didn't happen."

Crisis Or Opportunity?

Everyone who has followed the university movement agrees: The next six months will test its resolve.

After a global agreement known as the Multi-Fibre Arrangement expires Jan. 1, China is expected to triple its share of the U.S. apparel market, as companies that have hopped from the U.S. to Mexico to Central America in search of lower production costs migrate to Asia.

That $20 billion shift in work to China will cost millions of workers their jobs in Bangladesh, the Philippines, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Honduras and Mexico. And activists are hoping that as the changes take effect, universities will change tactics and embrace bold ideas.

Gereffi, of Duke University, Esbenshade and others note that the changes are likely to prompt the apparel industry to consolidate production in 12 to 15 countries, making it easier for universities to police the supply chain. They say colleges could be more aggressive in pressuring particular brands to live up to their codes and make long-term commitments to good factories.

Others go a step further, saying universities should consider centralizing production of their apparel in select factories that meet their standards, setting a bar for the industry.

On some campuses, professors are trading e-mails and phone calls, working to assemble a list of suppliers that could handle a sizable university order. Their goal: getting a few schools to agree to require that a percentage of their licensed apparel be made in sweat-free factories.

Although neither the association nor the consortium is interested in embarrassing the brands, most activists agree that colleges will need to make more noise if they really want to be heard.

"Before the students had the sit-ins and got companies to disclose, I said to the students: `The companies are going to laugh at your universities.' And I was so wrong," said Coughlin, the textile union organizer.

"So I think the universities could be saying to Nike: `Within the next five years, we want none of our apparel made in a sweatshop, and we want you to demonstrate that there are unions or living wages in every factory.'

"I would think that Nike would probably walk," she said.

"But I also might be really wrong."

The video version of this story and a discussion of it with Courant Staff Writer Matthew Kauffman is scheduled to be shown on New England Cable News each hour Monday between 9 a.m. and noon.

Trapped By Zippers And Hoods
(part 2)

The above came from the Hartford Courant website.

Fair use of copyrighted material

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Telling your Attorney to go fuck himself- PRICELESS

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