United Students Against Sweatshops

Members of United Students Against Sweatshops protested at the Main Building on Thursday afternoon.
Photo Credit: Michael Baez | Daily Texan Staff

For over five hours Thursday, students held a sit-in protest outside administrators’ offices to raise awareness of working conditions in factories that produce University apparel — eventually leading President William Powers Jr. to come down from his office to speak with the group.

Students Against Sweatshops, a UT branch of the nation-wide United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS), organized the protest, which focused on the licensing agreement UT approved in March with 289c Apparel. The agreement reduced official apparel suppliers from about 2,000 to 20 but also created a deal between the University and the Dallas Cowboys’ official apparel company. Franchesca Caraballo, USAS member and social work junior, said the Cowboys’ apparel company is known for having sweatshops in countries such as Bangladesh and Indonesia.

“The deal essentially means that the Cowboys’ merchandising will have a monopoly over our apparel, and that’s problematic because they have a long range of labor rights abuses and human rights abuses in some of their factories located around the world,” Caraballo said. “The deal was made with no student input.”

Caraballo said the organization will fight the 10-year agreement until it goes into affect in June 2016. 

According to University spokesman Gary Susswein, UT has multiple partnerships with workers’ rights organizations.

“UT-Austin is a member of not just one, but two separate organizations that monitor worker safety in apparel factories — including one that was specifically recommended, backed and endorsed by United Students Against Sweatshops,” Susswein said.

About 15 students occupied the space over the course of the protest. After about four-and-a-half hours, Powers came down from his office, to tell protesters the new deal bolsters UT’s ability to oversee its shortened list of suppliers as well as protect worker safety.

“We take workers’ rights seriously, whether it’s in the United States or abroad,” Powers said. “We monitor [these issues] through the groups that we’re in. We respond to reports that we get and we take them seriously.”

UT students light candles during a vigil in front of the Littlefield Fountain. The activists encouraged students to petition against UT to cut its contract with the VF brand, which refuses to sign an accord to insure workers’ safety and pay living wages.
Photo Credit: Thalia Juarez | Daily Texan Staff

Two Bangladeshi-sweatshop-eradication activists urged students to petition for UT to cut its contract with the VF brand — which owns clothing lines such as The North Face, Wrangler and Vans. 

Kalpona Akter, executive director of the Bangladesh Centre for Worker Solidarity, and Mahinur Begum, a survivor of the Rana Plaza factory collapse, which killed more than 1,130 Bangladeshi garment workers in 2013, spoke Wednesday against factory working conditions.

The conditions in the sweatshops were inhumane, according to Begum. The workers worked from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. and coped with a lot of physical and verbal abuse, Begum said. 

“When the company people came to do the auditing, the factory managers trained us on what to say,” Begum said. “We had to claim we were not abused and conditions were safe.”

The Rana Plaza factory collapse was entirely preventable and was a result of negligence by the brands and corporations, Begum said,

“If companies thought we were human, these accidents would not happen,” Begum said. “The responsibility was on the factory owners, my government and the brands sourcing those factories.”

The collapse led to a legally binding contract called the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, according to United Students Against Sweatshops member Andy Flores. The accord holds brands legally accountable for insuring worker safety and paying workers living wages. 

Twenty-one million people are victims of forced labor, a label that includes sweatshop workers, according to the International Labour Organization. The organization also reports that the U.S. generates $150 billion in illegal profit from forced labor each year. 

UT has a contract with the VF brand, one of the biggest apparel brands in the world, Flores said. VF refused to sign the accord, so United Students Against Sweatshops is fighting for UT to cut the contract with the corporation. 

“We need to seek out more ethical and moral apparel brands who will uphold worker safety,” Flores said.  

United Students Against Sweatshops clubs have pushed universities across the country to cut their contracts with brands that use sweatshop labor. As a result, the companies began to work with the workers and make improvements, according to Flores.

Students and workers have power to improve labor conditions when they show solidarity, Akter said. 

"We create a power sandwich that puts pressure on universities and corporations,” Akter said. “We are only asking administration to do the right thing.” 

Members of the UT chapter of United Students Against Sweatshops are continuing their efforts to make UT apparel sweatshop-free — this time by getting the University Co-op to purchase $53,000 worth of apparel from a factory with fair working conditions.

Members of the organization contacted George Mitchell, president and CEO of the University Co-op, earlier this fall and asked him to order $250,000 worth of the store’s apparel from Alta Gracia, an apparel factory in the Dominican Republic that has come to represent the pinnacle of fair working conditions in an underdeveloped country, United Students Against Sweatshops members said. 

After multiple correspondences with organization members, Mitchell announced the decision Friday to make an initial order of $53,000. He said it would not be practical for the University Co-op to make a $250,000 initial purchase.

“Anyone in the retail business will tell you that [$53,000] is a ‘significant purchase.’” Mitchell said. “Anything more as an opening order would be irresponsible on my part.”

Mitchell said he wants to test out the apparel before making a larger order, and his decision came after looking into the success of other university bookstores. He said the bookstores at New York University, Oregon State University and Washington University have all made initial orders of a similar size from Alta Gracia.

Mitchell said he would be open to ordering more of the apparel in the future if it sells well.

In a letter to its members sent Friday, Mitchell said the success of the apparel’s sales will depend largely on the actions of the organization.

“If you do accept this offer and would like to work with us, we will do our part in marketing the merchandise in a civilized and positive fashion,” Mitchell said in the letter. “All the bookstore managers I contacted emphasized the fact that the Alta Gracia product sales were successful only if the student organizations stayed actively involved.”

Bianca Hinz-Foley, Plan II sophomore and United Students Against Sweatshops member, said the organization will remain involved in the University Co-op’s efforts to sell the apparel, and she hopes this purchase can be the start of a strong relationship between the organization and the store.  

In response to the purchase, Hinz-Foley said the organization has planned an event titled “RACE TO THE TOP: UT students celebrate the beginning of an ongoing relationship with the UT Co-op over the issue of ethical apparel” for Wednesday at 1 p.m.

The event will be held outside of the University Co-op on Guadalupe Street. Attendees will run from there to the UT Co-op Administration office, located at 507 W. 23rd St., roughly two blocks away.

The run will symbolize “that collegiate garment manufacturing does not have to be a race to the bottom ... but can instead be a chance to uphold human rights and embody ‘what starts here, changes the world,” according to a statement released by the organization Monday.

Printed on Tuesday, November 13, 2012 as: University Co-op tests ethical apparel

Sydney Dwoskin, international relations and global studies junior explains the new UT Sweatshop-Free Coalition campaign focused on the University Co-Op.

Photo Credit: Yaguang Zhu | Daily Texan Staff

Members of United Students Against Sweatshops showed Wednesday they are willing to do anything to avoid wearing apparel made in a sweatshop, even if it means wearing almost nothing at all.

A few members of the organization gathered in their underwear on the West Mall on Wednesday afternoon to collect signatures for a petition asking the administrators of the University Co-op to purchase $250,000 worth of apparel from Alta Gracia, an apparel factory in the Dominican Republic.

Alta Gracia is an example of a factory with fair working conditions in an underdeveloped country and the purchase would show that the University Co-op supports those fair conditions, said Jessica Alvarenga, a geography junior and USAS member. “The Co-op would be be living up to UT’s motto of transforming lives for the betterment of society, as that is exactly what Alta Gracia has done.”

She said USAS members collected about 360 signatures and will be continuing the same efforts tomorrow.

Alvarenga said although the apparel the University Co-op carries now is all made in factories overseen by the Workers Rights Consortium, an organization that monitors the working conditions in factories all over the world, Alta Gracia differs from many of those factories because of its open door policy. She said the policy allows for inspectors from the Workers Rights Consortium to inspect the factory
without notice.

Alvarenga said her organization would like to see that same policy and other policies at Alta Gracia that provide for a fair working environment implemented in factories all over
the world.

Alvarenga traveled with Sydney Dwoskin, an international relations and global studies junior and USAS member, to Alta Gracia last summer.

Dwoskin said she was amazed at how well the factory was run and the positive effect that had on the workers and their community as a result.

Dwoskin said the organization will meet Monday with George Mitchell, University Co-op president and CEO.

Alvarenga said the University Co-op has not told the organization its stance but is interested in discussing the matter.

Representatives from the University Co-op declined to comment until after Monday’s meeting.

USAS members also led a protest in their underwear last spring in an effort to get the University to join the Worker Rights Consortium, a goal that was achieved last summer.

Eighteen members of the USAS organization were arrested last spring for participating in a sit-in at University President William Powers Jr.’s office as part of their effort to get the University to join the Worker Rights Consortuim.

Printed on Thursday, October 25, 2012 as: Organization petitions Co-op for apparel use

Members of USAS said the sit-in was done as a last resort after years of trying to convince the University to join the consortium. Alvarenga said in the case of this initiative with the University Co-op, USAS would again exhaust all other avenues before resorting to an illegal direct action effort, but it could happen again if the organization’s demands are not met.

Four UT students took a trip across the border last weekend to see the impoverished lifestyle of factory workers and the struggles they face just four hours to the south as they push for better working conditions.

Philosophy senior Sophia Poitier, Plan II senior Sabina Hinz-Foley, Plan II sophomore Bianca Hinz-Foley and former UT student Yajaira Fraga traveled Friday to the border city of Ciudad Acuña, Coahuila, Mexico. There, they met with representatives from an automobile manufacturing plant owned by PKC Group that employs close to 8,000 people. Employees of the factory have received international media attention during the last few months as they have attempted to form a union and gain better working conditions and increased pay. The four students are members of the UT chapter of United Students Against Sweatshops, an international organization that advocates for workers’ rights.

Poitier said some of the factory workers invited the students to their homes, where they saw the dirty, cramped government or make-shift structures many of the workers pay a significant portion of their pay to live in. 

“I actually got to see what these people’s lives are like and that makes it much more real and much more urgent,” Poitier said. “It made me realize how important solidarity is for these workers, because not only are they working 10 hours a day, holding second jobs and taking care of children, but they are also organizing in their spare time.”

Poitier said, people in the UT community and the rest of the country are generally not aware enough of the living conditions that exist in Mexico.

Fraga agreed, saying most of the media attention on Mexico in the U.S. tends to focus on issues associated with the border.

“Obviously you hear and read things about Mexico, and they are never pretty,” Fraga said. “But you never get to read about the struggles that people go through day in and day out.”

Bianca Hinz-Foley said another goal of the trip was to encourage the workers and lend additional support to their struggle.

“One of our objectives as USAS students is to stand in solidarity with worker rights organizations that struggle to combat illegal and inhumane working conditions in their factories and workplaces in Austin and abroad,” Biana Hinz-Foley said in an email.

Poitier said the UT chapter of USAS will be focusing most of its efforts in the near future on an effort to get the University Co-op to purchase roughly $250,000 worth of apparel from a factory in Central America that has come to serve as an example of fair working conditions in an impoverished area.

“We want the Co-op to show that they care about the rights of factory workers,” Poitier said.

Printed on Friday, October 19, 2012 as: UT students visit Mexico, advocate for worker rights