Students politicise before they accessorise

April 21, 2000

How much does your university make from its branded sweatshirts? And are they made by sweatshop labour? Tim Cornwell reports on an issue galvanising students in the US.

When 20 students invaded the dean's office at the University of Michigan this February, they set up a mock sweatshop, complete with garment factory soundtrack. Not a bad effort, as publicity stunts go, but the protesters went one better. On a live web-cam, they broadcast photos of the "sweat-in". Then they put the dean's office up for sale on the online auction site eBay. Bids ran as high as $5,200 before website monitors pulled the plug on the prank.

The occupation was merely a skirmish in a two-year student campaign against the use of sweatshops to manufacture university-branded goods. In a creative mix of old-fashioned disruption and savvy internet politicking, a small but committed core of students calling themselves United Students against Sweatshops has forced a string of concessions.

A centrepiece of any modern campus is the bookstore - typically selling all manner of branded goods. One college picked at random on the internet - Utah State - offers caps, footballs, T-shirts, sweatshirts, fleeces, jackets, key chains, mugs, socks, polo shirts, shorts, car flags, plastic water bottles, mouse pads, picture frames, children's outfits, even golf-club head covers. "How about a sweatshirt for mom, or a diploma frame for your graduate?" asks the website of Harvard's famous store, The Coop.

But the charge that universities have prostituted their hallowed hallmarks on the products of Asian, Latin American and yes, United States factories, where under-age or female workers struggle through long hours on pitiful pay, has touched a raw nerve.

The students' campaign has come a long way fast. Early on, universities, facing spirited protests, adopted codes of conduct for the manufacture of licensed goods, and companies publicly swore off exploitation. But students have not settled for promises.

Last autumn, major garment corporations including the sportswear company Nike agreed to a key student demand - to identify specific factories making licensed products, having first refused point-blank.

In the past month alone, student protests have ranged from a nude bike ride in New York to an 11-day hunger strike in Indiana. Like the Michigan stunt, they are aimed at a new issue - the knotty question of enforcement. Students have demanded that colleges ditch a blue-chip White House and industry panel for their own independent watchdog. The fledgling Worker Rights Consortium operates from a New York church office with a single paid staff member, but supporters see it emerging as the model for a global enforcer keeping tabs on working conditions in factories around the world.

"Every apparel company says we respect human rights, we are doing this and that," says Nicholas Reville, a student at Brown University, one of the first to adopt codes of conduct. "What is needed now is a way to verify what's really happening."

The University of Michigan, a "Big Ten" member of the prestigious Midwest football and basketball league, collects a reported $5 million a year in licence fees on university clothes, sporting goods and souvenirs. The students' sweat-in followed a takeover of the university president's office a year earlier. After three days, Michigan more or less pledged to join the WRC; two other Big Ten colleges followed suit.

So far, universities in the United Kingdom have been left alone, partly because, unlike their US counterparts, few can boast large contracts with specific brands such as Nike. Nonetheless, Guy Hughes, head of the UK campaign team at the student group People and Planet, says: "I think that if you started digging for the sources of clothing in UK university shops, you would not be surprised to find the same sort of problems. There is nothing special about US clothing - it comes from the same sort of sources. All kinds of clothes in Britain come from countries where employment conditions are bad."

Last year, with sit-ins at six major US universities, the anti-sweatshop movement was described by the The New York Times as "the biggest surge in campus activism in nearly two decades". This is despite the reputation of US students as more accessorised than politicised. In 1999, an annual student survey reported that only 26 per cent thought "keeping up with political affairs" an important goal, compared with 58 per cent in 1966.

Although United Students against Sweatshops claims chapters in about 150 campuses, the number of activists is small. But by staging sweatshop fashion shows and "knit-ins", they seem to have stirred the sympathy of a wider body of students, and indeed faculty, worried about who stitched their handsome sweatshirt or stuffed their teddy bear swathed in college colours.

In many cases, the students have had at least oral blessing from university authorities, concerned to protect the good name of the college brand, but also seemingly relieved that students have found something to jog their somnolent political consciences.

Michigan president Lee Bollinger called the demonstrators who took over his office "just the kind of students you want on your campus", praising their "passion and leadership". Needless to say, they dismissed his kind words as a public-relations gimmick.

Two recent and very public episodes have jarred US sensibilities over sweatshops. One came when Kathy Lee Gifford, the matron of US morning television, was shamed when her line of branded clothes was exposed as the product of child labour. Another milestone was the photo of Pakistani children stitching Nike soccer balls, an episode that Nike described as "a large mistake".

The market for college merchandise is valued at about $2.5 billion a year. Students, according to one count, spend $360 a month on clothing alone. Universities take profits from goods sold in their own stores and from licensee fees on independent sales. For some colleges, these are multimillion-dollar earnings. The Collegiate Licensing Corporation licenses athletic products for nearly 200 universities and about 2,000 retailers. While the CLC has a code of conduct, exactly where and under what conditions these products are made is a matter of conjecture.

Companies hotly deny that they abuse cheap labour, but when exposes occur, sub-contractors are blamed. USAS cites research showing that the typical labour costs on a $15 college T-shirt may be less than three cents, with profit margins of 75 per cent. Michigan protesters claimed that a UM baseball cap costing $20 brought $1.50 to the university but only eight cents to the Dominican Republican worker who made it.

Campaigners are demanding - and getting - a variety of worker protections. This month, Purdue University in Indiana banned the manufacture of its products in 13 countries that do not guarantee labour organising rights, from Laos to Somalia. The University of California recently strengthened its code of conduct for licensees, adding the demand for a "living wage" and an end to any forced contraception for female employees.

The students and their supporters link their activism to the same forces that turned the World Trade Organisation meeting last year into the fiasco dubbed the Battle of Seattle. Sweatshop campaigners were among those in Washington this week to protest at the International Monetary Fund and World Bank meetings, with the theme that the world economic market is feeding inequality and corporate exploitation of cheap labour. "We think of this as a first step. Here is a distinct market, the university logo market, in which we can try to change company practice," says Edna Bonacich, a professor of social and ethnic community studies at the University of California in Riverside and author of a forthcoming book on the Los Angeles garment industry.

"It could be a model for going after other sectors. We are not trying to change everything at once, but we would like to change the global economy ultimately."

The internet has served as a critical organising forum in colleges. "It's hard for me to imagine that we would be having this success if it wasn't for the easy chatI that we have had with each other," says Harvard second-year Ben McKean. Indeed, the history of the protest is etched on the worldwide web. USAS's site runs links to the corporate lists of factories in Mexico, Puerto Rico, Haiti, Thailand, Pakistan and elsewhere, including the US. Last October, Nike was the first to post the names of 41 factories in 11 countries where it produces apparel for US colleges. GEAR for Sports has also offered a database, where customers can enter the style number on a garment label to trace factory information.

Factory disclosure was long the students' rallying cry; now armed with the new data, they want monitoring, too. Last year, about 130 colleges and 11 apparel makers joined established human rights and workers groups to form the Fair Labour Association. They have plans and funding to set up a monitoring system for factory conditions.

The students say the FLA is tainted by its corporate ties. Their alternative, the WRC, has embraced the notion of random factory inspections. The FLA has White House blessing, but the recent protests have driven 30 universities to join the WRC within a month.

The WRC's advisory council includes sympathetic US labour experts along with trade unionists from the US, South Africa and Nicaragua. It has no corporate members. Political science student Maria Roeper, on a break from her studies, is the WRC's only paid staff member. "We are at a time when global economic justice is coming into people's consciousness," she says.

Worker Rights Consortium:

United Students Against

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