How do you shut down a sweatshop in Bangladesh from a college campus in Albany? Back in the 1990s a few wildly idealistic college students got the idea to somehow pressure their schools to change the practices of the exploitative multinational companies producing campus-branded apparel. It was an odd success, sparking a massive anti-sweatshop movement that forced many schools and other public institutions to at least incorporate the lexicon of “workers’ rights” into their commercial and subcontracting policies. But years later, politically successful rhetoric has dissolved into squishy policy programs, according to researchers with the Solidarity Research Center. Its dissection of one university system’s “sweat-free” policy reveals anemic oversight that does little to check brutal labor abuse for the sake of fashion.
Encompassing 64 campuses and 460,000 students statewide, SUNY wields considerable purchasing power in the global fashion market, retailing truckloads of SUNY-branded sports wear and team-spirit paraphernalia. And producing lots of jobs for rural migrants in Global South factory towns.
The language of SUNY’s procurement policy is straightforward but vague: “contractors, subcontractors or licensees shall be required to comply with” basic standards, and certify that “apparel or sports equipment [made] using university marks was done in compliance with all applicable labor and occupational safety laws including but not limited to child labor laws, wage and hour laws and workplace safety laws.”
Through Freedom of Information Law requests, which yielded tellingly incomplete records, researchers found that the seemingly extensive anti-sweatshop policy adopted by SUNY’s Board of Trustees in 2010 has largely gone unenforced, while fair-labor standards fail to reach the factory floor.
Auditing to monitor compliance was flimsy to nonexistent. Researchers report that “the schools are not consistently collecting information about the factories where the apparel are manufactured,” and the certification procedures enable SUNY authorities to “require the name and address of subcontractors and manufacturing plants ‘if known,’ but do not require the vendor to seek out that information. This loophole allows the vendor to simply omit this information.” The seeming lack of interest on the administration’s part may reflect a lack of, or dismissal of, strong public pressure.
Under the policy, SUNY was supposed to set up a special labor-advisory panel, but this was nowhere to be found on surveyed campuses.
SUNY’s policy is rooted in state laws authorizing educational institutions and public agencies to adopt anti-sweatshop policies. But SUNY (which has not responded to a media inquiry) has resisted legislative attempts over the years to strengthen institutions’ fair-labor procurement policies, contending that its existing anti-sweatshop policy was sufficient. But the latest audit showing “no adequate procedures in place to ensure decent working conditions” suggests SUNY isn’t upholding its end of the bargain.