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Labor

No sweat on campus

The crusade to keep colleges from benefiting from sweatshops continues.

Kerstin Cornell rallies against sweatshops outside U-M's Fleming Administration Building in March.
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Published 9/8/1999

The most energetic student movement of the ’90s, the protest against exploitative foreign sweatshops, is poised to return to campuses this fall with more vigor, enthusiasm and resources than ever before. At issue is the widespread practice of universities profiting from the sale of clothing and accessories produced in sweatshops overseas.

This movement took on an especially high profile at the University of Michigan, where 30 students held a three-day sit-in at university President Lee Bollinger’s office in March. The action resulted in the university adopting a code of conduct for vendors licensed to make and sell merchandise with the U-M logo. The code also called for the establishment of an anti-sweatshop advisory committee composed of faculty, students and staff.

The action was one of many significant victories student activists won last year, but they remain unsatisfied with many of their schools’ policies. So instead of letting the sweatshop issue go the way of many campus crusades – fading from student consciousness during summer vacation or dissipating when leaders graduate – "no-sweat" organizers have taken steps to ensure that their agenda will stay in the forefront of students’ minds.

Most visibly, a loose coalition of no-sweat campus groups called United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS) has established a national office in Washington, D.C.

"The national headquarters will be a central place for no-sweat activists to get information and support," says Maria Roeper, a veteran USAS organizer and a senior at Haverford College in Pennsylvania. "The movement has gotten too big and too complex to move forward without it."

The USAS office, opened this month, is comparatively small – employing only one full-time staffer – but its responsibilities are overwhelming. Along with supporting hundreds of no-sweat groups across the country, the office is to coordinate "national days of action," link student activists with other community activists, and make outreaches to campuses without organized no-sweat campaigns. The USAS also plans to lead fact-finding expeditions to Latin America – expeditions in which students will infiltrate factories, meet with garment workers and expose sweatshop conditions to the international community.

Those myriad responsibilities result from the spectacular growth of the campus no-sweat movement during the last two years. The crusade gained visibility in 1997, when Duke University students pressured administrators to adopt a code of conduct that prohibited the school from contracting with factories that violated labor laws or human rights.

The code of conduct model quickly caught on with student groups at other universities, leading to sit-ins, rallies and marches at dozens of campuses. The protests reached a climax last spring, with hundreds of student groups calling on their administrators to adopt stringent codes. When the USAS called its second annual meeting in July, 200-plus no-sweat organizers showed up – more than quadruple the number attending in 1998.

Even though the movement has come a long way, it now faces a daunting and ironic foe: the Fair Labor Association (FLA), a White House-sponsored initiative ostensibly designed to combat sweatshop labor. In theory, the FLA would investigate apparel-producing factories overseas and hold them to an industrywide code of conduct. But student activists accuse the FLA of being little more than a public relations stunt.

"The FLA is nothing but a smokescreen for hiding unjust labor practices," says Lyndsey Norman, another USAS activist. "It lacks some of the most important clauses any code of conduct needs – full public disclosure of factory locations, guarantees to pay a living wage and independent monitoring."

Those three criteria have become the USAS’s rallying cry. Without disclosing factory locations, apparel companies can cloak their sweatshops in secrecy, hiding deplorable working or living conditions from the rest of the world. Without living wage guarantees, factories will, at best, pay only the "prevailing wage" of the country in which they are located – which is usually not enough to adequately house and feed workers. And without independent monitoring, companies can hire friendly firms to investigate factory conditions – with the understanding that the factory will get a passing grade.

More than 100 universities have joined the FLA, adding their names beside corporate giants such as Nike, Liz Claiborne and Reebok. Many university administrators defend the FLA as a meaningful way to stop sweatshop abuses.

"The FLA is courting universities for legitimacy," says USAS’s Roeper. "By saying, ‘We have 100 universities endorsing us,’ the FLA gains a lot of credibility. Meanwhile, university administrators just don’t want to deal with the sweatshop issue anymore; it’s bad publicity, it’s hard work, it’s inconvenient. So joining the FLA seems like a win-win situation – except that it won’t do anything to improve workers’ lives."

To expose the inadequacies of the FLA, student activists have already conducted their own investigations into Latin American sweatshops. Last March, the USAS teamed up with the National Labor Committee (NLC), another anti-sweatshop group, to send a delegation of students to an FLA-monitored Liz Claiborne factory in El Salvador.

A spokesman from Price Waterhouse Cooper, the accounting firm hired by the FLA to audit the factory, had assured students that conditions in the factory "were just fine." But when students arrived, they said they found egregious violations of human and labor rights, including subpoverty wages, 15-hour work days (with only two bathroom breaks permitted), daily full-body searches and workers fired for even talking about unionizing. Upon their return, the students penned an open letter to Liz Claiborne.

After a similar fact-finding trip to Honduras last summer, USAS activists recorded their impressions of other FLA-approved factories in a report called Behind Closed Doors. Wrote one student: "We saw hundreds of workers, the majority young girls, entering a factory. A security guard armed with a huge rifle paced back and forth in front of the gates, occasionally telling the workers to hurry. Disgusted, we watched hundreds of people walking hypnotically into these monstrous buildings, enclosed by barbed-wire fences and 20-foot concrete walls, on a beautiful Sunday morning. It’s supposed to be their only day off."

At U-M, efforts this year will focus on obtaining a commitment to a strong monitoring program that isn’t controlled by corporate interests and truly benefits workers, says activist Rachel Edelman, a senior at the university.

"Clearly, the corporate monitors are inadequate," says NLC Executive Director Charlie Kernaghan. "And now that student activists are seeing for themselves – with their own eyes – the deplorable conditions that the monitors ignore, they’re more likely than ever to resist the FLA."

According to Kernaghan, who has been active in human and labor rights organizing for decades, student pressure has become the most powerful force in the no-sweat campaign.

"In terms of the sweatshop movement, 1999 is the year of the student," he says. "They’ve made more progress than any labor organizations, any religious organizations, or any human rights groups. If anyone can rock the FLA, it’s students."

Though specific protests haven’t yet been planned, no-sweat organizers across the country are ready to mobilize at a moment’s notice. "The atmosphere is changing on college campuses," warns Lyndsey Norman. "If our universities don’t switch course and make genuine responses to student demands, you’re going to see a lot of action this fall."

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