SWEATSHOPS, AND ACTIVISM AND ACRONYMS, OH MY! by Jennifer Sterling

United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS) has recently reinvigorated campus anti-sweatshop activism in an effort to raise awareness and support for a new program jointly proposed by USAS and the Worker Right’s Consortium (WRC). In the past, USAS and the WRC have collaborated with student organizations at universities and colleges in North America to insist that their respective institutions adopt codes of conduct for, and demand public factory disclosure from, brands that manufacture apparel bearing university logo(s); apparel widely purchased and worn by students and their families. Universities have taken these measures, alongside of membership in organizations such at the WRC and the Fair Labor Association (FLA), as a commitment to logoed apparel being manufactured under fair and ethical conditions. The collective power of students has been successful in keeping pressure on campus administration to honor their commitments to labor rights. In turn, universities and their thirty billion dollar apparel industry exert pressure on the companies that manufacture their licensed apparel to adhere to their codes of conduct, ultimately improving sweatshop labor conditions in, at least, a sector of the apparel industry.

Although it seems that the appropriate steps are in place to improve the working conditions of apparel industry employees, there has been a distinct lack of the enforcement of codes of conduct. This has resulted in the continued production of collegiate apparel in sweatshop conditions (i.e. abusive treatment, excessive working hours, dangerous conditions, inadequate wages) where efforts to unionizing are repressed and a ‘cut and run’ approach follows a trail of cheap labor, abandoning those factories that have made headway in labor rights. In an effort to remedy this, USAS and the WRC have proposed the Designated Suppliers Program (DSP). The DSP will require licensees to produce university goods in factories that have, or are willing to have democratic unions and living wages. To achieve this licensees will need to increase the pay to employees and commit a percentage of their university apparel production to designated sweat-free factories.
The “Sweat-Free Campus Campaign” to promote the Designated Suppliers Program (DSP) has been fairly successful, with thirty schools signing so far. However, the program has met with wide critique. In particular, and most importantly, the Fair Labor Association (FLA) has refused to support the measure, leaving universities and colleges affiliated with both the WRC and the FLA in a lurch. The University of Maryland, who recently failed to sign the DSP despite an – albeit brief to date – campus effort is one of these institutions. Under normal circumstances, this dual affiliation is complementary and mutually reinforcing. Both organizations work with college and university licensing departments to discourage and reform sweatshop practices and both function as ‘watchdogs’ and provide avenues for the report, investigation and transparency of labor violations. However, neither organization has been successful in the enforcement of university codes of conduct. The FLA feels that continued efforts and vigilance may be the best course of action whereas the WRC is promoting the DSP. Another important distinction between the two, and one offered as an underlying reason for contradictory approaches to labor rights, is their membership. While both organizations are made up of universities and colleges, FLA membership also includes NGOs and apparel companies such as adidas and Nike.
The DSP has come under fire from the FLA for a number of reasons. One of the most often cited concerns about the DSP is its legality, which revolves around anti-trust laws. Although lawyers employed by the WRC have declared no significant risk, schools, including Maryland, continue to state legal concerns as a reason for not signing the DSP. Another popular argument, employed by Maryland in its refusal of the DSP, is that the program would be counter-productive to the anti-sweatshop movement, insinuating that it has a focus too narrow to have the desired affect on the apparel industry. The DSP is being implemented at the level of university and college licensing first to provide an alternative ‘race to the top’ model that will, in time, affect the rest of the industry. Other commonly cited problems pertain to the program’s feasibility and include the complexities of categorizing factories as ‘sweat-free’, estimating and implementing living wages, and requiring mandatory labor unions.
In response, the DSP recognizes a number of ‘associations’ that would meet the labor union requirement and therefore not prohibit countries such as China, where labor unions are not permitted, from making the ‘sweat-free list’. Identifying ‘sweat-free’ factories will be an ongoing effort by factories, their employees, licensees and the WRC. The ‘list’ is not decided arbitrarily or only by the WRC, and is not preset or unchanging. Living wages are fairly easy to calculate and are based on a ‘market basket’ approach that takes into consideration the local cost of basic needs (food, water, shelter, healthcare, education, etc). Their implementation in factories will be part of contract negotiations and the increased cost to licensees to double or triple wages – the amount necessary to raise current wages to DSP standards – will translate to the consumer as a 1-6% increase (usually less than one dollar).
I feel there are many reasons the DSP should be supported. Universities need something in place to ensure their codes of conduct are being enforced and the DSP provides an opportunity for direct intervention. I would like to applaud efforts by Feminism Without Borders, the campus organization spearheading the “Sweat-Free Campus Campaign” at the University of Maryland, for the efforts to date and those that I am sure are yet to come. Most campus campaigns resulting in support of the DSP have taken more time than the one month Maryland has had. I am optimistic that continued efforts may prove successful; even if it seems that the University may have already made up its mind. In the meantime, we can increase the number of people involved in the decision, push for the formation of a larger decision-making body and increase awareness on campus. Feminism Without Borders has suggested they are willing to go naked rather than support sweatshops and – although it worked for Berkeley in their fight for the DSP – I don’t think we have to go there…yet.

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One thought on “SWEATSHOPS, AND ACTIVISM AND ACRONYMS, OH MY! by Jennifer Sterling

  1. The Designated Suppliers Program is definitely an effort to be greatly supported by all universities, including Maryland. I feel if the program really goes through and let’s say, Maryland sweaters have to be raised in price to make up for increased wages at apparel factories, then I’d have no argument against it. Knowing that paying however much more for a piece of clothing so individuals in another country can enjoy their LIVES as I enjoy my SWEATER is something that will most definitely make me feel better about. Sweatshops are a direct effect of the search for the cheapest labor, but finding cheap labor doesn’t mean we have to take the riches out of a factory workers life.

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