By Hanh Nguyen, ILRF intern
Feminism Without Borders at the University of Maryland-College Park held a sweatshop worker panel last Wednesday. For the past year, FWB has been working on a campaign to make UMD sweat-free, which is no easy task. With help from United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS), Julio and Manuel came to talk to students about working in TOS Dominicana, a factory in the Dominican Republic that produces cloth for Hanes, Wal-Mart and others.
Last Wednesday’s event was held in a nearly packed large lecture hall. Julio and Manuel, the two workers, spoke to us about the conditions at TOS Dominicana and how they had feared for their lives after trying to organize. Manuel spoke of death threats and promises to make his death “look like an accident.” It was very saddening to hear about all they had gone through, and how hard they worked to get the factory managers to listen to them. Many workers were fired and still do not have their jobs back. Hanes’ corporate office would not talk to them.
However, USAS decided to arrange a speaking tour with Julio and Manuel to bring their stories to the college students who buy the clothes they make. Educating the students, who then put pressure on their university, who put pressure on the apparel companies, is a way to change the conditions at TOS Dominicana and sweatshops elsewhere. Once Hanes heard about the speaking tour and started receiving responses from students, the company decided to meet with the union organizers at TOS.
After Julio and Manuel spoke, we wrote letters to Joia Johnson, the vice-president of Hanes, demanding that the workers at TOS fired for trying to organize get their jobs back and that they ensure that workers’ rights are respected at the factory. Students also signed the petition to be given to the UMD administration urging them to sign onto the Designated Suppliers Program. Julio and Manuel thanked us for listening to them and giving them a chance to tell their story, but we thanked them for being courageous enough to fight against worker repression.
How does this relate to the average college student? Well, chances are we all own at least one university-branded t-shirt or hoodie. The big athletic apparel companies such as Nike that want to produce clothing or athletic wear with a university’s name have to enter into a contract with the university to do so. Until about 10 years ago, there was no stipulation in these contracts that the rights of the workers had to be respected who made university licensed clothing. USAS chapters on many different campuses across the country demanded that the companies making university clothing be held accountable for the terrible conditions of these sweatshops and improve those conditions. The Worker Rights Consortium (WRC) was created to verify and inspect conditions in places where our clothing is made.
However, things are not always that simple. An unfortunate consequence that occurs is that sometimes when a factory is found to be non-compliant, and steps are taken to ensure workers’ rights, such as organizing a union, the apparel company will simply pull its orders out and the factory will be shut down. The apparel company doesn’t want to deal with a factory with workers who actually get paid living wages, because it will cut into their bottom line. This is a terrible result because we want the companies to stay in the factory and help improve the conditions for the workers, not take jobs away.
One way to ensure this does not occur is with the Designated Suppliers Program. From the USAS website:
“Under the Designated Suppliers Program, university licensees are required to source most university logo apparel from supplier factories that have been determined by universities, through independent verification, to be in compliance with their obligation to respect the rights of their employees – including the right to organize and bargain collectively and the right to be paid a living wage. In order to make it possible for factories to achieve and maintain compliance, licensees are required to meet several obligations to their suppliers. Licensees are required to pay a price to suppliers commensurate with the actual cost of producing under applicable labor standards, including payment of a living wage; they are required to maintain long-term relationships with suppliers; and they are required to ensure that each supplier factory participating in the program receives sufficient orders so that the majority of the factory’s production is for the collegiate market. Licensees may bring any factory they choose into the program, provided the factory can demonstrate compliance with the program’s labor standards. The program is phased in over a three year period.”
Forty schools have signed onto supporting the DSP, but UMD has not. For the past year, Feminism Without Borders has staged letter-writing campaigns, knit-ins, and events to raise awareness of the sweatshops that make our university clothing. We’ve sent letters to the University President, C.D. Mote, who has yet to meet with us. But it is encouraging that we have gotten responses back from UMD’s licensing department head, Joe Ebaugh.
The USAS chapter at UMD will not give up and will continue to pressure UMD’s administration to commit to the DSP. For more information on the DSP, go to studentsagainstsweatshops.org