UK Students Stand Up Against Sweatshops

April 13, 2012
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In the wake of our totally awesome 8th NCAA national championship win, a group of UK students decided it would be a good time to raise the issue of who makes our licensed apparel and under what conditions they work.  UK senior Alli Sehon (pictured above talking to Eli Capilouto’s secretary) wrote this op-ed earlier this week:

Our sports teams use a lot of apparel between jerseys, training gear and coach and staff attire. To ensure that our university isn’t supporting sweatshops, UK contracts the Fair Labor Association, through the Collegiate Licensing Company, to monitor factories producing UK apparel. . . .

[However,] The FLA is a flawed organization despite its seemingly noble purpose. The FLA has come under fire for poor reporting habits, ignoring reports of rights abuses and systemic conflicts of interest.

The Board of Directors even includes representatives from those companies being monitored for labor violations. Allowing companies to monitor their own labor abuses is like allowing players to call the fouls they make on other players. This may be fine for a pick-up game in the community court, but at the level of a global and wealthy corporation like Nike (think Final Four of the NCAA tournament) outside referees are needed.

Now, if those referees also happen to be employed by oh, let’s say, the University of Louisville, could anyone be really sure a fair game had been played?

She goes on to suggest that UK join a more reputable monitoring organization called the Workers Rights Consortium (WRC) which instead of being made up of corporate fat cats is “led by students, experts in international and labor law and representatives of charitable organizations.”

Earlier Ms. Sehon and her fellow student Sara Ailshire took the opportunity at a public event to talk to President Eli Capilouto.  They expressed their desire that UK affiliate with the WRC and that UK’s bookstore purchase more apparel from the union-represented Alta Gracia factory in the Dominican Rep. (The NYT did a good write up on this factory.) To President Capilouto’s credit, he took the time to respond to the young ladies’ concerns via letter.  Unfortunately, he insisted that while  imperfect, the FLA was an adequate mechanism.

In the mean time, a growing campus coalition led by the nascent UK Students for Trade Justice has begun to organize students around this issue.  Today, eight of them took a trip to Eli Capilouto’s office and delivered this letter:

[W]e are asking our university to join the Worker Rights Consortium, a non-profit organization founded by universities, students, and labor rights experts and tasked with enforcing codes of conduct on behalf of the more than 180 affiliated colleges and universities. When worker rights violations occur in collegiate factories, the WRC assesses the situation works with licensees, factory managers, workers, unions, and NGOs to facilitate the necessary improvements. The WRC also provides affiliate universities with regular updates about specific factory investigations and broader issues affecting workers who make our logo apparel.  Peer institutions such as the University of Louisville, Indiana University, Ohio State University, and the University of North Carolina have all taken the step to affiliate to the WRC.

As you wrote in your letter, we are already affiliated with the Fair Labor Association.  It is our respectful contention that this institution is not just, as you state in your letter “imperfect,” but also ineffective.  Major corporations that the FLA is supposed to police provide the funding for the organization.  This creates the classic “fox guarding the hen house” scenario.   FLA reports are plagued by lost and misleading information.  Frankly, the FLA does not work and we should not continue to spend money on it. . . .

Along with affiliating with the WRC, we call on you to ensure an increase in our university’s orders from Alta Gracia Apparel. Since the Alta Gracia factory opened, it has made an incalculable difference in the lives of the women and men who make the clothing, their families and their entire community, and goes above and beyond the social impact of all other brands, proving that living-wages and unions are not only possible in a thriving business – they’re in fact profitable. It is critical that our university support this model factory with a substantial increase in orders and to match the purchases made by Duke, UCLA, NYU, and University of Washington, among others. We call on you to ensure that we place all orders on hold besides Alta Gracia until at least $500,000 of the apparel in the bookstore was produced by Alta Gracia so we can match our peer institutions. It would be unacceptable to the student body to spend our budget on less socially responsible brands until at least this amount of Alta Gracia has been reached.

We’ll see where this goes, but this blogger for one is proud of UK students for standing up for workers’ rights.

Full disclosure: Will Emmons, a UK law student and member of UK Students for Trade Justice, contributed significantly to the reporting in this blogpost.

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