Thursday, April 08, 2010

Different anti-sweatshop strategy wins breakthrough

A factory in the Dominican Republic has begun production on sweatfree goods for delivery to university bookstores starting this fall or earlier. It is a breakthrough for a new strategy pioneered by the United Students against Sweatshops (USAS) and its partner, the Worker Rights Consortium (WRC).

Under an arrangement that took two years of dialogue, Knights Apparel, one of the largest vendors of apparel bearing university logos, and the DR factory management have committed to pay workers a living wage, as defined by a study conducted by the WRC. Knights will pay its supplier factory a price designed to make this possible.

Both Knights and the factory management have also made a commitment to respect the right of workers to organize and to recognize any union chosen by the workers. The WRC will be responsible for verifying these and other standards.

A noted health and safety expert, Garret Brown, and a colleague have already made an inspection of the factory, and will work on health and safety issues in cooperation with worker representatives in the factory.

To meet expected demand for no-sweat goods, Knights has launched a new brand, Alta Garcia, which for now will be sold only to campus stores, beginning with those that have already declared their intention to carry the product.

Says Scott Nova, WRC director: “It is a pilot project, not a comprehensive solution, to the challenges we face, but it is an exciting step forward.”

The project puts into practice key elements of the WRC’s innovative Designated Suppliers Program (DSP). Its aim is to enhance the enforcement of university codes of conduct, which as stand-alone documents have proveen pretty much useless without the institutional and incentive framework to make them effective.

The WRC is a Washington- based research and investigative non-governmental group funded by more than 170 U.S. colleges and universities. Its 15-member governing board comprises five persons from each of the three WRC constituencies – the universities, the United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS), and independent labor rights experts comprising the WRC advisory council.

Illustrating the universities’ basic interest in the endeavor is the desire not to have their names smirched by complicity with sweatshops. Duke University’s “trademark licensing policy” affirms “a policy of protecting the symbols that are associated with its name and reputation as one of the finest universities in the country.”

Once resistant to any such policy, Duke in the spring of 1998 adopted one of the first comprehensive codes of conduct against sweatshops. Months later its officials joined Duke Students Against Sweatshops in signing an agreement committing the school to seek disclosure of all licensing factory locations, and it later had contracts with 409 licensees renegotiated to require such disclosure.

In the fiercely competitive global marketplace, however, this approach made little impact.

Duke’s director of trademark licensing, Jim Wilkerson, supported the founding of WRC in 2001, and went on to become a key officer of its board and of its 36-member DSP working group. It took an arduous decade of discussion, planning, negotiating, getting legal advice, writing and rewriting DSP – plus the pressure of USAS chapters on hesitant universities – for the WRC to come this far.

It still has a long way to go, as a phone conversation with Wilkerson, a fan of this blog, made me realize.

For a report by the Maquiladora Health & Safety Network, see “Network Assists Start-up of Real ‘no sweat’ garment factory.”

Note: The WRC is a joint initiative aimed at the procurement policies of universities. A parallel movement, the SweatFree Consortiium, is a joint initiative aimed at the procurement policies of governments, local, state, and national. See my December 14, 2009, posting on SweatFree Communities and the Sweatfree Purchasing Consortium.

Print Page

No comments: