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Sweating It Out 

UC’s ban on sweatshop products may be hard to enforce

Wednesday, Jan 26 2000
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The University of California is promising that its sweat shirts won‘t be made in sweatshops anymore -- nor will team uniforms, T-shirts, mugs or other merchandise sporting the name or logo of any UC campus or sports team. This is the goal, at least, of a new code of conduct developed over the past year by a student-faculty-administration committee and announced this month by UC President Richard Atkinson. The anti-sweatshop code substantially toughens the licensee’s code of conduct that UC adopted in August 1998, adding protections for women workers and a ”living wage“ requirement, and demanding more detailed data on product sources.

Some $17 million worth of goods with the university‘s imprints are sold annually, on which UC reaps about $1.3 million in royalties. Adidas, Nike and Reebok are among the top 10 vendors in dollar volume, but such companies are usually far removed from the nuts and bolts of the production process, the terrain of myriad small subcontractors. Actually stitching together a jacket or uniform is likely to occur south of the border or halfway around the globe.

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Bay Area reporter Reese Erlich found hundreds of Bengali women stitching gold ”CAL“ letters onto blue baseball caps for 20 cents an hour last year. This was at one of the ”better“ factories in Bangladesh -- it was air-conditioned and had passed Nike’s code of conduct -- elsewhere women were often making 13 cents per hour. Here, as in many ”export processing zones,“ unions are unheard-of or even forbidden by law. Stateside subcontractors, while worlds away from Asian wage scales, are often equally far from livable wages. In November, workers at J.H. Design Group on Pico Boulevard, a past supplier of jackets to UCLA and to USC, filed a suit charging that they had been paid as little as $3 an hour, while forced to work 10- and 12-hour days, with ”homework“ assignments sometimes added. The company denies all wrongdoing.

The new provisions make UC‘s standards among the strongest of the more than 100 schools that have adopted codes of conduct for vendors of campus-related merchandise. The earlier UC version, like that of many colleges, drew on a model code of conduct drafted by the Apparel Industry Partnership (AIP), a business-dominated body pulled together by the White House in 1996 in the wake of several sweatshop scandals involving garment makers like Kathie Lee Gifford. That version sought to address nine workplace issues: forbidding child labor, forced labor, discrimination and harassment, and setting standards for wages, maximum weekly work hours, overtime compensation, and health and safety conditions.

The new UC code adds these requirements for licensees and their contractors: They must pay a ”living wage“ (which would vary by country) or locally prevailing wages and benefits, whichever is higher; they must disclose ownership and location of all plants involved in the production process; they may not discipline or terminate an employee for pregnancy or demand contraceptive use or pregnancy tests and should reinstate employees after maternity leave without demotions or pay cuts. The code takes effect immediately for any new suppliers, but those with existing contracts will not need to adopt their standards until their agreements come up for renewal. ”It’s a great step forward,“ declares Ralph Armbruster-Sandoval, a Chicano-studies professor at UC Santa Barbara who has been active with UCSB‘s Campus Labor Action Coalition.

While anti-sweatshop activists praise the code’s cutting-edge objectives, their enthusiasm is tempered by serious misgivings about how it will be monitored and enforced, a question set aside for future negotiation and decision. Among the doubters are several student and faculty members of the committee that devised the code‘s provisions. ”It’s an excellent code, but it‘s only as meaningful as its policing,“ says UCLA student Arlen Benjamin-Gomez. ”I’m not sure that can be done by men in suits who have no idea what‘s really going on.“

Another committee member, UCSB sociologist Richard Appelbaum, hails the new code. ”We’ve got companies posting their lists of factories on the Web,“ says Appelbaum, who agrees that major hurdles are ahead. ”I don‘t think self-monitoring is going to work.“

The monitoring and enforcement issues facing UC have been debated nationally ever since the anti-sweatshop movement gained prominence in the mid-’90s. The Apparel Industry Partnership, assembled at the initiative of the Clinton White House just after Thai-immigrant garment workers were discovered being held as virtual captives in El Monte, originally brought labor, business, and religious and civic groups together in search of an agreement on ethical and humane production practices. Corporations at the table included Nike, Reebok, L.L. Bean, Liz Claiborne, Phillips--Van Heusen and Patagonia, as well as the recently embarrassed Kathie Lee Gifford. Labor was represented by the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees (UNITE), and nonprofit groups like the Interfaith Center for Corporate Responsibility and the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights hoped to play a mediating role. While consensus was reachable on issues of child-labor and forced-labor bans, negotiations ultimately broke down over ”living wage“ proposals and monitoring methods.

In the view of labor and several of the nonprofit groups, the corporations were demanding an enforcement system that was untrustworthy and ineffective. The key dispute was over who would inspect factories and how often. Despite months of debate, business would not agree to support a fully independent monitoring agency, insisting instead on each company selecting its own monitors and putting them on its own payroll. The fact that a monitor could be terminated by a corporation unhappy with its report seemed to labor and others an obvious weakness and conflict of interest. So did the fact that some of the monitoring firms (such as accounting giant PriceWaterhouse Coopers) performed other functions (like annual corporate audits) for these corporations and thus had a substantial stake in harmonious relations. (In the case of PriceWaterhouse, the conflict of interest is magnified by the recent SEC charges that its principals and partners are often in fact investors in the very firms they audit, thus giving them added incentives to gloss over facts reflecting poorly on their corporate clients.

Businesses also demanded (and got) the right to determine which of their factories inspectors would visit -- a procedure not unlike drug-test subjects deciding which drugs they would be tested for and when. Under the AIP agreement, companies -- now called members of the Fair Labor Association -- would select 10 percent of their factories for inspection in each of the first three years, and 5 percent in succeeding years. This could give corporations certification as ”sweat-free“ employers even though 90 percent to 95 percent of their plants would go unscrutinized in any given year.

A third controversy revolved around secrecy. Under the AIP-approved plan there would be no consumer access to the monitors‘ reports -- these would remain confidential, with the Fair Labor Association making public only an annual summary of each company’s compliance -- ”an illusion of public oversight,“ says UNITE official Alan Howard.

These issues, among others, produced an impasse, resolved only when UNITE and several of the nonprofits left the AIP table in 1998 -- in response to corporate threats to quit if UNITE stayed.

Labor and its allies challenge the idea that occasional visits by outside inspectors -- even without the defects they criticized -- are the most effective approach to preventing workplace abuses. United Students Against Sweatshops advocates a different strategy, which would focus on training local civic groups (who speak the language and know the country‘s culture) as monitors, and make inspections in response to worker complaints, rather than on a random schedule. But under their proposal -- the Worker Rights Consortium -- inspections would not be merely reactive. They also call for aggressive policing in countries that suppress unions and worker rights, and with companies where violations are chronic. This proposal would also require licensees to ”fix“ problem factories rather than closing them and walking away to a new subcontractor. The threat of shutdowns (and consequent job loss) frequently inhibits employees from reporting on illegal wages or working conditions, says Medea Benjamin of Global Exchange.

Members of the UC committee proposed developing pilot projects to experiment with inspection methods, but, says professor Appelbaum, UC’s administration wasn‘t interested. Instead, Cal has joined Harvard and three other universities in underwriting a $250,000 study of working conditions in three Central American and four Asian countries to explore ways they might be improved. The study -- involving interviews with government and labor officials, civic groups, factory owners and managers, as well as plant inspections -- is coordinated by the Business for Social Responsibility Education Fund, which in turn is supported by 1,000 corporations, including major apparel makers. Visits to Mexico and China by two- and three-person teams have been completed, and the project should be wrapped up by June, says BSR vice president Aaron Cramer.

PriceWaterhouse was chosen by the university administrations to organize the factory visits, despite the skepticism of student and faculty committee members. In response to their misgivings, environment and health expert Dara O’Rourke, a former consultant to the U.N. development program, was added to the research team.

Committee members are taking a wait-and-see attitude, but continue to favor supplementary studies by UC‘s personnel. ”We’ve got such a wealth of talent in the UC system,“ says UC Riverside sociologist Edna Bonacich, who specializes in labor issues. ”It‘s just a terrible waste not to use it.“

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