Step into the bookstore and find yourself dazzled – classic gray T-shirts, strappy tank tops that complement the rainy-day pajama pants, fleece-lined hats piled next to waterproof gloves which surround the bee-striped scarves. All are similarly adorned with the tiny golden stitches of our logo. While admiring the newly arrived UR glow-in-the-dark Velcro attachable cell phone holder you notice minuscule lettering on a nearby shirt label – Made in Nicaragua.

Or perhaps it says Burma, Bangladesh, Haiti or El Salvador – all of these countries quietly produce your $30 UR socks. Perhaps you stroll out of the store still clinging loyally to your UR sweatshirt, or perhaps you find yourself plagued by an uncanny feeling that you are ignorant of some injustice sprinkled between the fibers of your UR pride.

Three years ago, UR students in the No Sweat Coalition protested for UR to license with the Workers’ Rights Consortium in an attempt to uncover discrimination within the sweatshops that manufacture our university merchandise. During this time President Jackson established a committee to discuss the advantages and disadvantages of joining the WRC but continuously posted several memorandums outlining his dismissal of the students’ demands.

The last of Jackson’s memorandums stated his final decision to ignore any further No Sweat petitions unless “legitimate new information, not rhetoric, come along.” Three years have passed, new data has been collected, and it is time for the university to re-evaluate the significance of consumer responsibility and reexamine the issue of joining the WRC.

Jackson argued that a license with the WRC was unnecessary because “currently all of our ‘logoed’ apparel is sold through Barnes & Noble, which requires its suppliers to subscribe to the standards of the Fair Labor Association. The FLA, an industry-run association created in 1999 by the Apparel Industry Partnership, has been criticized on numerous occasions. During the initial three-year attempt to provide monitoring for sweatshops, the FLA has accomplished little.

There is no doubt that this failure stems from the fact that the FLA is funded by those corporations that it is keeping watch over. In addition, CEOs of the same sweatshop-dependent companies also hold positions on the FLA executive committee. Some evidence that the corporate ties have paralyzed the FLA’s efficiency is a recent Global Exchange report by Medea Benjamin citing the regulations of the FLA – of monitored company’s factories, only a hand-picked 10 percent require formal inspection. Although the sweatshops observed are allegedly regulated, the FLA is not required to disclose any of the gathered information, thus making it a very secretive and suspicious “watch dog.” Lastly, the FLA turns a blind eye to companies that pay workers significantly less than the calculated poverty wage – the minimum income needed to support a family. Despite the humanitarian-based initiatives behind the FLA, in practice, it is merely a puppet for major corporations that hope to hush human rights activists.

Another point behind Jackson’s dismissal was the immaturity of the WRC, which was founded in 2001. “Frankly, I found myself more confused about the WRC, in part, no doubt, because it is apparently still in the process of becoming operational. This means that there is no track record to go on.”

Three years ago, college and university administrators, labor experts and students, all of whom recognized the impotency of the FLA, created the Workers’ Rights Consortium, a non-profit, independent organization. Almost immediately after its founding, WRC inspections revealed unjust work practices at the Nike Kukdong factory in China.

The company, which manufactured college merchandise, paid workers sub-minimum wages, denied them access to bathrooms and fired the hundreds that went on strike.

The WRC reported these appalling findings, disclosed the collected information to the public and Nike CEOs, and instead of backing out of the university contracts, opted to rehire those workers illegally laid off and adhere to WRC policy. Despite the predictions of free trade fundamentalists, regulation provided by the WRC did not cause economic devastation, but inversely, improved the sweatshop working conditions.

The WRC has uncovered dozens of cases of discrimination, such as the New Era cap factory in Buffalo, N.Y., and Land’s End Primo factory in El Salvador and have disclosed their findings, instigating action to prevent further worker abuse.

“At the bottom, I believe, much of what the members of the No Sweat Coalition want most – the moral support of the university – is precisely the danger for us as a special kind of institution, when the moral support is not tethered either to our own academic governance or to the health and welfare of our own population, ” Jackson wrote.

To further prove his point, President Jackson cited the Kalven Committee Report (1967), an outline of the University of Chicago’s role in social action, specifying that the university community, as a whole, should not choose sides on any issue of public debate. Securing a license under the WRC, Jackson explained, shows that the university as a whole questions the morality of sweatshops, and is therefore choosing a side.

However, when the university chooses to purchase merchandise from suppliers outside the US, and therefore outside the jurisdiction of our laws, it has already chosen a side. As an institute of higher learning, the UR community has a responsibility to exemplify the practices of conscientious consumerism. By trusting the industry-controlled FLA the UR administration denies us the access to the public reports the WRC makes available.

Welzer can be reached at bwelzer@campustimes.org.



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