Students Against Sweatshops

Franchesca Caraballo and Sarahi Soto from Students Against Sweatshops talk to Xiaoije Wei about their protest in front of Gregory Gymnasium on Wednesday evening.

Photo Credit: Thalia Juarez | Daily Texan Staff

Students Against Sweatshops protested a new 10-year merchandising agreement between UT and 289c Apparel, which protesters allege has exhibited a pattern of labor violations in developing countries.

Under the contract, 289c Apparel, which specializes in making university-themed clothes, would produce collegiate merchandise for UT. 

At the protest rally held at Gregory Plaza on Wednesday, the organization’s leaders claimed that the University administration has systematically ignored the concerns of the student body regarding 289c Apparel’s harmful labor practices.

The protest represented the organization’s latest efforts against the University’s involvement with 289c, according to psychology sophomore Andrea Flores.

“In the beginning of the semester, we caught wind that 289c was trying to get on our campus,” Flores said. “So we sent out a [Freedom of Information Act] request to get some more information, and, around the same time, we had workers from Bangladesh come on campus and speak out against sweatshops. Finally, surprisingly, we got a meeting with Craig Westemeier, who is the assistant athletics director for UT, which is huge.”

Flores said the meeting was not productive because Westemeier refused to admit that there was a bidding process occurring for UT’s merchandising contract.

“He flat out denied that there was even a bidding process going on,” Flores said. “We asked that there be community dialogue before we make this huge decision, but he said, and I quote, ‘Right now, we don’t have anything to have a community gathering for.’ Again, this was three weeks before 289c was chosen to be UT’s next licensee.”

UT alumnus Achilles Morales spoke at the rally and said the new business relationship could affect the University’s affiliation with the Worker Rights Consortium, a watchdog organization that reports back to the University regarding labor rights violations perpetrated by its suppliers.

“When the University of Southern California signed an agreement with 289c, they ultimately disaffiliated with the [Worker Rights Consortium] because the company was under too much pressure from the organization,” Morales said. “We are concerned that the same thing could happen at UT.”

Texas Sports reported that UT remains committed to ensuring the workers creating Texas products have fair working conditions. The University will conduct factory visits and continue its relationship with the Worker Rights Consortium and the Fair Labor Association, according to the report.

Regardless, Petro On, ethnic studies senior and Students Against Sweatshops member, maintained that Students Against Sweatshops will not stop their efforts until the University cancels the deal.

“It’s not too late,” On said. “It’s been done before, and we can do it again.”

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.”

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.”