UF students aim to make Gator clothing sweatshop free
With 66 colleges nationwide now signed onto Workers Rights Consortium within the last 2 years, the United Students Against Sweatshops at UF embarked on a campaign last fall semester, and will continue throughout the spring, to raise the consciousness of students and the administration to enact a drastic change to the university's policy for licensing contracts made with merchandising companies, such as Nike and Champion.
Currently, the companies that UF and other colleges around the country license, use sweatshop labor, mostly in Asia and South America, to assemble apparel with the school logos. This industry, which profits $2.5 billion a year from college merchandise alone, uses sweatshops to employ young women, that get robbed of an education by working 60 hours weeks for wages sometimes as low as 15 cents an hour, with no paid overtime. The factory environments are often unsafe, with toxic glue fumes in the air and extremely warm temperatures. The girls are forced to take birth control to keep them available to work and are not allowed regular bathroom breaks. When labor unions are formed and workers try to organize, most times they are fired.
The sad thing is that these are the only jobs available. The "Free Trade Zones," areas set up by NAFTA and the World Trade Organization, where there is no export tax, environmental policy or workers rights, are surrounded by villages so stricken with poverty that the wages barely cover the cost of transportation to and from work, never mind to buy food for a starving family.
The code of conduct that UF now adheres to is called the Fair Labor Association, which was set up by the Clinton Administration in 1997 as more information about these humans rights abuses began to surface. Although the name sounds like it is out for the best interest of the workers, to date it has not implemented any positive change in the way garment manufacturers operate. USAS, UNITE! (the needletrades union), and other industry watchdogs complain that the FLA is a weak, toothless code that only protects the companies image and not the workers. It is known that when the FLA conducts monitoring, factories are warned in advance, to allow the managers to make everything appear safe and fair. Once the inspection is conducted and a company is deemed "sweat free," the sweatshop conditions reappear and another inspection is not necessary for 10 years.
There is no information on the FLA policy (www.fairlabor.org) that promises full public disclosure of factory locations or an independent monitoring system. Also, it fails to guarantee workers a fair, living wage and the right to organize unions to allow collective bargaining agreements. These are imperative to empowering workers world wide to gain their freedom from oppression on their own.
That is why a group consisting of human rights groups and labor unions designed an alternative to the FLA called the Worker Rights Consortium (WRC). This non-profit organization supports and verifies licensee compliance with production codes of conduct. These codes of conduct have been developed by colleges and universities across the country to ensure that goods are produced under conditions that respect the basic rights of workers. WRC is developing a network of local organizations in regions where licensed goods are produced. This network will allow the WRC to inform workers of their rights under applicable codes of conduct and will allow workers to report conditions securely and confidentially. The intent is to provide a system for enforcing Codes that is straight forward, practicable, consistent with the mission and role of universities, and likely to have the most widespread effect in changing the actual behavior of licensees and their subcontractors. Most importantly, this enforcement process will benefit workers. Under the WRC, it is the University's role to define expected standards for treatment of workers and to hold licensees accountable, since it is impossible to get the industry to comply when global trade agreements make these cost procedures legal. Among the 66 schools that adopted the WRC are U. North Carolina, Duke U., Brown U., U. California, U. Michigan, U. Wisconsin.
At UF, USAS is currently organizing to make the WRC the new policy. Last semester the group began the semester by researching UF's licensing practices, submitting a letter of disapproval to all UF's top officials, attended seminars and conferences, and began a flyering and media blitz. Also a mobile tutorial was set up to educate the Gainesville community, which went to several local labor unions for support. USAS also marched and did guerilla theater in the UF Homecoming Parade, as "Snow White and the Seven Sweatshop Workers."
During the last week of the semester, several USAS members attended a meeting with UF Provost David Colburn, to initiate a dialogue with the administration.
During the meeting Colburn recognized that a problem does exist and said that UF officials are actively working to find the best solution. Although Colburn did say that the WRC is a possible option, and agreed to send people from a committee to attend WRC meetings, he did state the FLA is doing an adequate job and UF should stay aligned with it to see what happens with its new internal changes.
USAS Southeast Regional Organizer and UF political science senior Jason Tompkins said he thinks the administration is wary of giving the issue too much exposure, though he said it is hard to determine where they are after one meeting.
"I feel that they are not in any real hurry to get off of the FLA and onto the WRC. My opinion is that we are going to have to continue to apply pressure on the administration, so they do not procrastinate in coming to a better conclusion than what we currently have."
Above all, the meeting allowed the two parties to show where each stood. USAS conveyed to Colburn that since UF is the second largest collegiate licenser after the University of Michigan, it should take an active stance in developing a system fair to the workers instead of waiting for other institutions to do all the work. The meeting also assured student representation at conferences and board meetings regarding licensing issues.
"We can better see, as would be expected, that the UF administration is going to try to committee this to death and keep it under wraps, but it is a start," Tompkins said.
USAS meetings will be held on Saturdays at 4 p.m. at the Civic Media Center, 1021 W. University Ave. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
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