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Students Confront Sweatshops | The Nation

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Students Confront Sweatshops

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Student activists are now demanding that universities require licensees to contract exclusively with factories that not only adhere strictly to codes of conduct but also restrict their production to collegiate apparel. They want workers in this sector to be represented by independent labor unions or employee-owned cooperatives, and to be paid a living wage tied to local prices. Even if higher costs are passed on to consumers, price increases would be trivial. Apparel workers in developing countries typically earn 1 percent to 2 percent of the retail price. If paying a living wage doubled workers' wages, the $25 sweatshirt with the campus logo would cost only 50 cents or a dollar more.

About the Author

Richard Appelbaum
Richard Appelbaum, co-author of Behind the Label: Inequality in the Los Angeles Apparel Industry, teaches sociology and...
Peter Dreier
Peter Dreier teaches Politics and chairs the Urban & Environmental Policy Department at Occidental College. His...

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With the help of the Worker Rights Consortium (WRC), an independent monitoring organization with 145 member colleges and universities, USAS has identified a number of factories around the world--including in Thailand, South Africa, Kenya, the Dominican Republic, Mexico, Indonesia and the United States--that could qualify under these more stringent rules. The campaign calls for phasing in the program: In the first year 25 percent of production must come from the designated factories, and by the third year, 75 percent. If enough universities adopt these standards, the number of sweat-free factories will steadily increase. By creating a collegiate sector of high-quality, worker-friendly factories, USAS expects to prove that there is a market for goods made under ethical conditions.

"USAS is proposing that universities ask their licensees to strike a bargain with a subset of their suppliers--stable orders at fair prices in exchange for a lasting, enforceable commitment to high labor standards," explained Scott Nova, WRC's director. "This approach would make compliance with codes of conduct a winning proposition for factories, which is not the case today."

Campus crusaders, who view their efforts as part of a broader "fair trade" movement, believe that the time is ripe for a breakthrough on several major campuses, which would create momentum elsewhere. A growing number of university administrators share the students' frustration with the slow pace of progress that has been made, and are willing to try a new approach.

Jim Wilkerson, Duke's director of trademark licensing, said the USAS proposal is "feasible and doable" and that "support is likely." If he's right, this will be a major step forward to rein in footloose apparel companies that exploit desperate workers. By showing that they care what they wear, students can set a standard for the rest of us.

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