Are your T-shirts, sweaters and caps sold in most university stores produced by sweatshop laborers?
According to sweatshop laborer Fredy de los Santos “they sure are.”
Santos is an employee at a maquiladora plant that handles assembly work for brand-name companies overseas. BJ’B, the company Santos works at, now respects workers rights, Santos said, “but that was not always the case.”
Before becoming the second factory in the Dominican Republic to allow its workers to unionize, BJ’B – a factory that produces caps for Timberland, GAP, Reebok, Champion, Nike and universities – used to mentally, physically and morally abuse its workers, Santos alleged.
“Supervisors had a lot of power,” he alleged. “Pregnant women weren’t hired. Working overtime was mandatory. If (the supervisors) didn’t see you working fast enough, they would shove you or hit you.”
Santos said he and the workers feared the supervisors.
Workers use to tremble in fear, Santos alleged, when they saw supervisors going their way.
“It got to the point that to say a supervisor was coming was the same as to say a monster was coming,” he alleged.
Santos, who has been working for BJ’B for six years, said when the local sugar mill and paper factory in his community were shut down, factories like BJ’B, provided employment for everyone.
“When the factories moved to our town, we all thought it was a form of salvation for our situation and for the economy,” he said. “Not until we began working there did we realize that the factory wasn’t a place of opportunities but a place of human exploitation.”
At BJ’B, workers were allegedly forced to work 12-to-14-hour shifts, producing caps at 30 cents an hour, Santos said.
He said in 2001 a group of 20 workers began to organize and tried to form a union to fight against the alleged inhumane conditions.
The workers efforts, however, led them only to be fired, Santos alleged.
“We couldn’t even mention the word union,” he alleged. “Whoever started to talk about unionizing was fired on the spot.”
Santos, along with the other 20 workers, remained out of work for two months. It wasn’t until students began to get involved that their situation began to change, he said.
“With the help of United Students Against Sweatshops, we were able to fight back and get rehired by the company,” Santos said. “It was then that we began to see a positive change.”
Santos, along with other sweatshop laborers, are now part of USAS, “Another World in Production: Garment Workers Speak Out,” a forum composed of mistreated workers speaking out at various universities throughout the country, sharing their stories about producing for university brands in the hope that students produce change.
USAS is a group of students who actively organizes on their campus to end oppression of any kind on the basis of race, class, gender and sexual orientation, said Zack Knorr, Southern California regional organizer of USAS and student at UC Riverside.
One of the organization’s main projects right now is the Sweat-Free Campus Campaign, Knorr said.
Most university collegiate apparel comes from sweatshops, he said.
BJ’B is not the only factory that has allegedly mistreated its employees while produces collegiate apparel.
“There are tens of thousands of factories that make goods for the collegiate market,” Knorr said.
Amy Berger, director of the Matador Bookstore, said the bookstore carries JanSport, Champion, Russell, and other brands.
Berger said the bookstore does not carry sweatshop apparel.
The Matador Bookstore carries collegiate apparel made in Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, El Salvador, Fiji, Pakistan and Lesotho.
Cliff Ewert, vice-president of campus affairs and relations for Follett, parent company of the Matador Bookstore, said none of our brands CSUN brands come from sweatshops.
“If we find that they were (sweatshop plants producing the apparel) they would probably be eliminated as a vendor,” he said, adding the company takes slave labor seriously.
Ewert said the company has adopted a code of conduct that all vendors have to agree to before they can do business with the bookstore. As part of the code of conduct, these vendors are subject to monitoring by the company to make sure they comply with company policy.
Over the last four-and-a-half years Follett returned three major shipments from all of its stores after discovering the merchandise was not made under ethical working conditions, Ewert said.
“We make every effort to ensure that the products that we carry in our stores are not made with child labor or under sweatshop conditions,” he said. “And if you found a factory that you felt was suspect of such conditions, report it to us and we will take the appropriate actions.”
The Sweat-Free Campus Campaign, launched in Sept. 28, 2005, was formed as an attempt by students to require all brands that have a university name or logo are made in factories where workers are represented by a democratic union and earn a fair living wage, Knorr said.
“The campaign has been doing very well,” he said. “We have had victories at seven campuses already and we are anticipating a lot more in the next couple of months.”
The “collegiate licensed apparel is a $3-4 billion-dollar-a-year industry,” Knorr said.
Jessica Rutter, USAS national organizer, said her organization is asking universities that have a deal with brands producing their apparel, such as Nike, Adidas, Reebok, Champion, to use union factories that guarantee pure living wages for their workers.
“Five years ago when our first victory took place, universities throughout the country began adopting anti-sweatshop codes of conduct for university apparel,” Rutter said. “There are about 150 colleges and universities that are right now already affiliated with the Worker Rights Consortium that have a code of conduct.”
The WRC, said Rutter, “lays out basic standards for workers’ rights, such as health and safety, the right to organize, fair wages, sexual harassment and discrimination, and other basic labor right standards.”
Rutter said a problem that now exists is several factories that have improved are shutting down because they are losing orders.
Santos said the union cannot solve that problem.
“The problem that we are facing right now is not a problem that we can fight,” Santos said. “It’s a problem that consumers have to fight.”
After the reinstatement of the workers and the formation of the union, Santos said Reebok, their biggest supplier, cut all ties with BJ’B.
Taking their orders to factories that have not yet unionized, he said.
“Where exploiting those workers is a lot easier.”
BJ’B continues sewing for Nike, however, purchase orders continue to decrease, Santos said.
“The orders are getting smaller day by day,” he said. “Consumers like universities and students are the people that can collaborate with us and provide us with the help needed in order to fight against these brands and force them to purchase from factories that are unionized and that are not exploiting their workers.”
Carlos Moran, chair of CSUN Movimiento Estudiantil Chicana/o de Aztlan, said universities should invest in bringing sweat-free gear to students to make sure that workers are paid a reasonable salary, and are working in good condition.
Moran said M.E.Ch.A tries to make sure the shirts they purchase come from a sweat-free company.
Santos said universities should support campaigns that aim to end sweatshop labor.
“It is very important for us that universities support campaigns like this and help make a change in the working conditions,” Santos said.
He said he believes students should be informed about sweatshop practices.
“There are a lot of students that are unaware of the conditions under which the clothes that they wear are made,” Santos said. “Students should k
now that the national student support is really important for this fight.”
Carol Morales can be reached at email@example.com.