Fair Labor Association

Photo Credit: Blair Robbins | Daily Texan Staff

Editor’s note: Last week, 18 members of the Make UT Sweatshop-Free Coalition protested the University’s affiliation with the Fair Labor Association, a group that monitors working conditions. The protesters demanded that the University switch membership to the Worker Rights Consortium. After protesting outside of President William Powers Jr.’s office in the Main Building for hours, they were arrested for trespassing by UT Police Department.

Point: Putting the demands into perspective

By: Kayla Oliver

Last week, 18 members of the Make UT Sweatshop-Free Coalition occupied President William Powers Jr.’s office for approximately five hours before being arrested by UTPD. The group voiced its demands that UT join the Worker Rights Consortium, an independent labor standards monitoring organization, and produce all trademarked apparel according to its regulations.

The protest itself was rather lackluster. Throughout the afternoon, officials warned the small group of activists about the danger of arrest and trespassing charges and gave the students ample opportunity to leave voluntarily. There were a few shining moments of melodrama — a student read aloud Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” and the protesters formed a hand-holding circle of solidarity in the minutes before their arrests — but the protest’s only discernible victory has been an opening up of campus dialogue about sweatshops and labor standards.

UT spokesman Gary Susswein stated that because of budgetary constraints, UT will not partner with the Worker Rights Consortium, but students and faculty alike are engaging in a debate that has raged for years within the economic development and human rights communities.

In 2009, Nicholas Kristof, author and New York Times columnist, set off a firestorm of controversy when he published a column defending sweatshops in developing countries. He advocates an expansion of manufacturing industries in Asia, Africa and Latin America, claiming, “Bad as sweatshops are, the alternatives are worse.” Sweatshops, according to Kristof, offer the poorest families “an escalator out of poverty,” while stipulating fair labor standards in trade agreements stifles trade, raises prices for consumers and drives companies away from poor countries.

Needless to say, Kristof’s pro-sweatshop stance was not well received by the left; to a self-proclaimed idealist, the notion that sweatshops should remain unchallenged simply because the alternatives are even more appalling does indeed sound abominable. However, even liberals must acknowledge some of the hard truths that Kristof presents, and we must also recognize the benign misguidance of the UT protesters’ intractable demands.

Objectively, sweatshop labor does provide a better-paying and safer environment than, say, scavenging through a dump or driving a rickshaw. Imposing immediate sanctions on substandard factories would only drive corporations into less labor-intensive industries or countries without strict regulations. The newly jobless workers might be freed from oppressive sweatshop conditions, but they would not be freed from the financial demands of daily life and would end up in even direr circumstances.

Vehement opponents of sweatshops also forget our own country’s history with unscrupulous labor practices. Millions of Eastern European and Asian immigrants worked in backbreaking conditions in the decades surrounding the turn of the century, and illegal immigrants are still exploited in low-wage, high-risk industries. Of course, “if it happens in America it’s OK” is not an acceptable justification for oppression and exploitation in developing countries; however, there are much more realistic steps toward labor rights that students can take closer to home. An impassioned battle for international human rights is, of course, much more glamorous than domestic advocacy, but activists should not neglect either.

UT should encourage the Co-op to produce at least a portion of its merchandise through manufacturers that guarantee fair labor practices, and it should further investigate allegations of corruption within its current labor rights partner, the Fair Labor Association. The $50,000 membership fee charged by the Worker Rights Consortium would make a negligible impact on the University’s budget, and by many accounts the WRC holds its member companies to much higher standards than the Fair Labor Association.

However, an immediate and radical shift toward sweatshop-free UT merchandise would only drive up prices and leave struggling factory workers jobless or marginally employed. Ardent students must mix a hefty dose of realism with their lofty goals in order to responsibly address labor rights issues.

Oliver is an English and sociology freshman.

Counterpoint: Stop hiding behind the UT hoodie

By: Zoya Waliany

Last week, a University student organization made major waves on campus when 18 of its members were arrested. The Make UT Sweatshop-Free coalition, the UT branch of United Students Against Sweatshops, hosted a campus-wide human rights event that led to students occupying President William Powers Jr.’s office in the UT Tower. The event promoted workers’ rights and brought to light flagrant human rights violations committed by factories that produce UT apparel.

These students were demanding Powers encourage the University to affiliate with the Worker Rights Consortium, a nonprofit labor rights monitoring corporation that conducts investigations of working conditions in overseas factories. Currently, UT is a member of the Fair Labor Association, a group accused of misrepresenting labor abuses.

The movement has the support of dozens of University and city organizations as well as numerous UT professors from a variety of academic departments. However, the movement has garnered criticism as well from opponents who misunderstand the UT student organization’s mission statement.

An argument made famous by New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof states that “the denunciations of sweatshops end up taking jobs away from the poorest countries” and eliminates the manufacturing industry in these countries.

This obvious argument fails to correctly criticize the Make UT Sweatshop-Free coalition. This organization is not calling for the end of sweatshops. Shiyam Galyon, biology senior and USAS member, argues, “While our name is ‘Students Against Sweatshops,’ what we are asking for is a more transparent and legitimate monitoring organization.” This is where affiliation with the WRC comes into play.

The demands of these protesters are far from the radicalism many critics attribute to them. In fact, as many as 180 other American colleges and universities have already affiliated with the WRC, making UT the radical outlier in this situation. As influential public schools — including all 10 of the University of California institutions, University of Michigan and University of Houston — have joined the WRC, clearly this watchdog group does not pose a credible threat to the textile industries in these developing countries. The industries can comply with these parameters for improved conditions and still operate, ensuring jobs will still be available in communities.

Furthermore, the U.S. Department of Justice Antitrust Division has given its approval of the WRC after researching the WRC’s methods and whether it produces anticompetitive effects. The department finds that the WRC’s proposals are “unlikely to lessen competition in the collegiate apparel sector. Moreover, the factories affected by the proposed licensing terms are likely to constitute only a tiny portion of the labor market, making significant anticompetitive effects in that market unlikely.” As the Department of Justice finds no reason to challenge the WRC’s initiatives, we find there are numerous reasons affiliating with the WRC would detriment neither the University nor textile industries abroad.

Some critics urge these student activists to focus on domestic rights violations as opposed to international rights violations. This obtuse and America-centric viewpoint not only detracts from the student activists who do champion domestic human rights issues but also fails to understand the impact UT has worldwide. As Galyon aptly frames it, “Our world is globalizing and we need to acknowledge the link between local and global. At UT, that link is through our collegiate apparel. We are in a position to act local and affect global. To say that we shouldn’t care how our local policies are affecting others far away is to promote apathy.”

We can no longer hide behind our UT hoodies and ignore the human rights violations of those producing them. As a flagship university and a historical trendsetter, UT has the responsibility to make tangible change by affiliating with the WRC, thereby promoting improved workers’ conditions in factories we have a direct influence in.

Waliany is a Plan II and government senior.

International Relations and Global Studies senior Billy Yates is embraced by a friend as he prepares to speak out against the arrests of 18 students at the UT Sweatshop-Free Coalition’s protest Wednesday. The group gathered in front of the tower Thursday afternoon to demand that President Powers drop the charges against the students.

Photo Credit: Rebecca Howeth | Daily Texan Staff

All 18 protesters arrested Wednesday in the lobby of President William Powers Jr.’s office were released from Austin Police Department custody Thursday morning and gathered on the Tower steps at noon to reiterate their message and rally support.

The protesters, who are members of the Make UT Sweatshop-Free Coalition, drew more than 50 people to the rally.

Coalition members including Asian studies senior William Yates, former UT student Bianca Hinz-Foley and Latin American studies junior Jessica Alvarenga addressed the crowd. Assistant English professor Snehal Shingavi and education professor Noah de Lissovoy also spoke on the steps in support of those arrested.

Shingavi said the Fair Labor Association, the labor monitoring organization with which UT affiliates, fails to ensure the basic rights of factory workers producing UT apparel because it is beholden to the corporations it ostensibly monitors.

“Asking the FLA to verify that there are no human rights abuses is like asking [former Pennsylvania State University football coach Jerry] Sandusky to make sure there is no pedophilia,” Shingavi said.

The University should instead join the Worker Rights Consortium, an independent labor rights organization that protects workers’ rights, Shingavi said.

Standing near the marble plaque where the University’s Core Value — to transform lives for the benefit of society — is engraved, de Lissovoy said the University should stand behind the arrested students.

“Instead of prosecution, the University should think about supporting these students,” de Lissovoy said. “They acted upon the principles that any decent liberal arts and sciences education should stand for. We as educators should support this.”

As of 6 p.m. Thursday, more than 20 UT faculty members had signed an online open letter to the administration requesting that the University drop all charges against the students.

The group has been protesting the University’s affiliation with the FLA for at least two years.

Speaking on behalf of the University’s administration, director of media relations Gary Susswein said Wednesday’s protest has not changed the University’s stance on the issue. UT will maintain its affiliation with the FLA and will not join the WRC, he said.

“Our position remains the same,” Susswein said. “The issue is closed.”

Yates said Wednesday’s acts of civil disobedience opened up a new period of opportunity for the movement to eliminate the production of UT trademarked apparel in sweatshop conditions. Yates serves as a regional coordinator for United Students Against Sweatshops, which broadly defines sweatshops as any place where the human rights of workers are abused, according to the USAS website.

“This is really a new beginning,” Yates said. “[Wednesday’s events] have really reinvigorated our campaign. Community members, donors and alumni are upset that students are being arrested for this. Now it’s a matter of mobilizing these people to take it to the next level.”

The coalition’s plan is to use its momentum to make President Powers aware that many members of the UT community support the University joining the WRC, Yates said.

“This whole next week we will have delegations of community supporters — from students, from nonprofits, from faculty — deliver letters to the president’s office,” Yates said. “It should be peaceful.”

Members of the Make UT Sweatshop-Free Coalition await arrest during a sit-in outside PResident Powers' office Wednesday afternoon. The protesters claim that UT apparel is made in factories withsubstandard conditions.

Photo Credit: Thomas Allison | Daily Texan Staff

Update, 2:45 p.m.: According to the Make UT Sweatshop Free Coalition's Facebook group, all students have been released from jail. This afternoon, UT spokesman Gary Susswein said "Our position remains the sam as yesterday. The issue is closed."

Nineteen activists entered the President’s office Wednesday and began an afternoon-long protest that ended with UTPD arresting all protesters involved.

 

The protesters, 17 UT students and two non-UT students and all members of the Make UT Sweatshop-Free Coalition, occupied the office in the Main Building starting at about 12:30-1:00 p.m. When UT Police Department Chief Robert Dahlstrom threatened the group with immediate arrest for disrupting office business and trespassing, the students relocated to the lobby, where they remained until UTPD arrested them for criminal trespassing when the office closed at 5:00 p.m. UTPD reports 19 students were arrested, although members of the group said there were 18 students involved.

Some of the protesters had been released from jail on bail by press time, according to the group’s Twitter account.

The coalition demanded that UT become a member of the Worker Rights Consortium, an independent labor rights monitoring organization, said group leader William G. Yates, an Asian studies senior who also serves as a regional coordinator for the nation-wide United Students Against Sweatshops.

“We demand that the University of Texas at Austin, in accordance with our own code of conduct and stated core values, have an honest, open discussion with our administration and affiliate with the Workers Rights Consortium, the only independent monitor for collegiate apparel,” Yates said. “We will be here till these demands are met.”

The University is currently a member of a different oversight organization, the Fair Labor Association, and has no intention of leaving the FLA or of joining the WRC, said University spokesman Gary Susswein. “The University is very comfortable in the FLA,” Susswein said. “What we hear from the FLA is that these factories are being monitored.”

Susswein said both the WRC and the FLA require an annual membership fee of $50,000. Joining the WRC would not be a responsible decision in a time when the University faces shrinking funding, he said.

“Our examination has determined that there is no added benefit and that in a time of budget austerity spending another $50,000 is a concern,” Susswein said. “The FLA is not the shallow, hollow organization that its critics would have you believe.”

The University generated $10.6 million in merchandise revenue in the 2011 fiscal year, according to the Austin American-Statesman.

“We can afford to pay our football coach $5,000,000 and we have 4,000 factories all over the world where workers rights are not conducted because of $50,000,” Yates said. “It shows a crisis of priorities for this university.”

Sisters Bianca, Sabina and Sophia Hinz-Foley were among those arrested. Bianca recently graduated from UT, Sabina is a Plan II junior and Sophia is a high school student. Sabina said Wednesday’s protest has the potential to stimulate the student body to act.

“Many students are not with us because they think they cannot put their academic careers at risk,” she said. “But this issue is galvanizing a lot of kids who think they can make a tangible, obvious improvement in the world.”

The Make UT Sweatshop-Free Coalition announced on their Facebook page that a rally will be held in front of the Tower today at noon.

History Junior Katy Aus talks to neurobiology and history senior Kamene Dornubari-Ogid as they exercise at Gregory Gym Plaza as part of OxFam UT’s Working Out for Workers’ Rights. The group gathered to promote awareness of their campaign to ask UT to join the Human Rights Consortium and speak out against sweatshops.

Photo Credit: Trent Lesikar | Daily Texan Staff

A group of students have delivered a letter to UT President William Powers Jr. demanding the University affiliate with a workers’ right group that would independently monitor working conditions wherever officially licensed UT merchandise is produced.

Members of fair labor advocacy groups, the Make UT Sweatshop-Free Coalition and Oxfam UT, gathered at Gregory Plaza on Wednesday, petitioning students to encourage the UT System to join the Worker Rights Consortium, an independent group that monitors factory working conditions for more than 180 universities nationwide. The group then marched to the Tower where Oxfam president Katy Aus delivered the letter to the president’s office.

In the letter, students said Powers has not made public the results of University commissioned research on factories that produce UT apparel, which he has the power to do.

The UT System is currently associated with the Fair Labor Association, an industry body that allows members to monitor the working conditions in their own factories.

The results of the research were presented to senior associate athletics director Chris Plonsky and assistant athletics director Craig Westemeier in April. Westemeier, who is a University representative on the FLA board, is also a member of the Office of Trademark Licensing, the body which ultimately decides who UT affiliates with.

Aus said this presents a conflict of interest because representatives from major UT apparel suppliers, including Nike Inc., sit on the board and are less likely to report infringements.

“There’s a critical lack of transparency with the FLA,” Aus said. “They don’t give out names of the factories so students can find out where their clothing is coming from. We’re asking the administration to release the research that has led them not to join the WRC.”

However, the groups are not accusing the UT System of using sweatshop labor, Aus said.

History professor Neil Foley, who attended the event, said he supported the students’ request for assurances that apparel carrying the UT logo or burnt orange color did not use sweatshop labor.

“There are serious questions that have been raised about the FLA,” Foley said. “People from the corporate world are producers of these products and sit on the board. If every one of our peer universities has signed on to the WRC, we need to know why UT has been so reluctant to do so.”

Economics sophomore Cody Levy said he hoped the University could provide its own assurances that officially licensed UT apparel is not manufactured using sweatshop labor.

“It should be clearly known that UT is not a university that indirectly supports something like that,” Levy said.

A spokesman from President Power’s office said he has not yet had time to respond to the contents of the letter.

Printed on Thursday, December 1, 2011 as: Coalition insist UT join labor group, monitor factory working conditions

Photo Credit: Lawrence Peart | Daily Texan Staff

A group of students occupied President William Powers Jr.’s office for about three hours Friday to convince him to sign a petition to join a workers’ rights group.


Members of Students Against Sweatshops and Oxfam UT, fair labor advocacy organizations, have worked for more than a year to schedule a meeting with the president. They want him to support the Worker Rights Consortium, an independent group that monitors factory working conditions.


Currently, the UT System is affiliated with the Fair Labor Association, which allows companies to monitor the working conditions in their own factories. Billy Yates, economics senior and Students Against Sweatshops member, said the FLA presents a conflict of interest because companies are less likely to report poor labor conditions in their own factories.


“The WRC reports are more accurate, and we know this from talking with the workers,” Yates said. “The FLA has contradicted itself in reports before, and our main concern is that the companies are monitoring themselves.”


Six student representatives met with Powers on Friday. Yates said he hoped Powers would have signed a document committing to the WRC, although Powers said the meeting was only for him to listen to student concerns.


“The meeting was misrepresented, and I will not go through with discussing a resolution,” Powers said.


During the meeting, the students requested a commitment to the WRC or a time frame detailing when Powers could make a decision. Powers offered none and said he would present the information to administrators at the System level.


After Powers ended the meeting, the students remained in his office in protest. About 30 more supporters chanted phrases, such as “people over profit,” from the lobby.


Doug Garrard, the senior associate dean of students, asked the representatives to peacefully leave and said the president had only agreed to a meeting, not a decision.


“The easy way to get us out of the office is committing to the WRC,” said Carson Chavana, geography junior and Students Against Sweatshops representative.


The supporters in the lobby continued chanting while the representatives in the office called and emailed friends to flood the president’s office with phone calls. Powers did not return to discuss a resolution, and the representatives left the office at 4:50 p.m.


“Powers was being diplomatic and avoided making any set decision,” said Kamene Dornubari-Ogidi, neurobiology senior and Students Against Sweatshops member. “In my opinion, this was a move to blockade us.”

Students stood nearly naked on the West Mall on Friday, wearing little more than boxes and signs with slogans such as “Bareness for Fairness,” and “Worker Rights are Human Rights” to bring additional oversight into the factories that produce UT apparel Friday.

Students Against Sweatshops held the event for the National Week of Action from United Students Against Sweatshops. This is the second year the organization performed a naked tabling event. The group is asking for a meeting with President William Powers Jr. in which they will present their case that the University should allow the Workers Rights Consortium to oversee the production of apparel that bears the UT logo, said geography junior Carson Chavana, Students Against Sweatshops member. United Students Against Sweatshops helped start the consortium in 2001.

UT currently contracts with the Fair Labor Association. The association’s board includes representatives from different universities, non-government organizations and apparel manufacturers such as Nike and Adidas.

“We see it as a conflict of interest because they are corporations monitoring their own factories,” said Billy Yates, an international relations and global studies junior and Students Against Sweatshops representative.

Because the consortium involves student representation on its board, the organization believes it is not partial to corporate interests and will ensure fair working conditions, Yates said.

“We’re proud of our University, and we’re proud to wear burnt orange,” said Latin American studies senior Cait McCann, the co-president of Oxfam, an environmental and human rights advocacy group. “We want to make sure our University lives up to its core values by protecting worker’s rights.”

UT partnered with the association when it began in 1999 as the product of a task force by former President Bill Clinton.

The consortium has 180 university partners, while more than 200 universities affiliate with the association.

Last spring, Students Against Sweatshops and its partner group Oxfam, worked with Student Government to pass a resolution urging the University to join the consortium. The groups have since sent letters to Powers and other administrators. Students are not satisfied with the response, Yates said.

Powers responded to letters from the groups saying, “The [association] maintains processes for monitoring, remediating and verifying fair labor practices and safe conditions in factories where apparel is manufactured.” University representatives have personally visited 10 factories in the last four years in China, Vietnam and the Dominican Republic, he said.

Assistant athletics director Craig Westemeier, who works in the office of trademark licensing, serves as the University representative on the board.

“We’ve been on the forefront and have been ensuring to the best of our ability that the companies that we license are doing what they need to be doing in terms of how do they source and how do they decide on a factory that’s going to produce their product,” Westemeier said.

Westemeier said he believes this is something students should be interested in but their claims are not well researched and that the association has made significant gains over the past 12 years for workers rights.

An affiliation with an anti-sweatshop nonprofit group is not enough to ensure that all UT apparel is made only under ethical working conditions, said students in a meeting with UT’s trademark licensing department on Monday.

After the Oxfam and Students Against Sweatshops protest on Nov. 8, assistant athletics director Craig Westemeier agreed to meet with three members of the groups to discuss the University’s potential affiliation with the Worker Rights Consortium, a global labor rights organization.

UT is currently affiliated with the Fair Labor Association, a nonprofit group seeking to end sweatshops in factories. Westemeier serves on the association’s board.

“We’re certainly going to take into account the information that the students we spoke with today provided,” he said. “We’re going to take a look at it and do what we think is best for the University.”

The consortium is composed of students, university administrators and independent labor rights experts. The Fair Labor Association consists of students, university administrators and representatives from major corporations such as Nike.

The association’s inclusion of corporate representatives creates a potential conflict of interest, which is why Oxfam and Students Against Sweatshops feel that an affiliation with the consortium would be more effective, said Latin American studies senior Caitlin McCann, co-president of Oxfam UT.

“Because corporations are tied up in this process of monitoring, anyone from the outside looking at this on paper would say, ‘You have representatives from a company sitting on a board meant to monitor that same company,’” she said.

UT Student Government voted in favor of the University’s affiliation with the Consortium in April. The University has been affiliated with the Fair Labor Association for 11 years. During that time, the University has made steady progress toward protecting workers’ rights and improving working conditions worldwide, UT athletics director Chris Plonsky said in a Nov. 19 letter to the student groups.

“We’ve made progress, and we’ve had growth,” Westemeier said. “The FLA has been effective. If you can have a collaborative effort where you bring everybody to the table, you make better strides and help make change.”

Corporations sitting on the association’s board are convincing reasons why an affiliation with the group is not the best possible choice, said international relations and global studies junior Billy Yates, a member of Students Against Sweatshops.

“This is what we see as a better alternative,” he said. “As students that go here and pay tuition and the voices of the University, this is how we feel. We just want something that’s better.”