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Students Give Sweatshop Fight the College Try

Labor: Campus protesters nationwide demand to know where their schools' collegiate apparel is made and call for fair treatment of workers.

April 22, 1999|NANCY CLEELAND | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Taking up the cause of low-paid workers who produce the clothing sold in campus stores, students across the nation have staged a wave of sit-ins, teach-ins and rallies unseen since the anti-apartheid movement of the 1980s.

In just the last two months, students have seized administration buildings on four major campuses--Duke, Georgetown, the University of Michigan and the University of Wisconsin--demanding disclosure of factory locations where T-shirts, jackets, pants and other clothing stamped with their college logos are made.

On Friday, hundreds of University of California students plan to converge on the Oakland office of UC President Richard C. Atkinson to ask for the same information, part of a national student "week of action."

And in early May, UC Berkeley students will host a three-day training seminar for organizers in the national anti-sweatshop campaign. "It's all about building a grass-roots student labor movement," said John Isaacs of the U.S. Student Assn., who will lead the seminar.

Connected by daily e-mails and conference calls, the small core of activists who make up the United Students Against Sweatshops has brought youthful energy and idealism--not to mention national publicity--to an issue that labor unions and human rights groups have struggled to spotlight for years.

Not only have they struck a moral chord with their peers and a handful of sympathetic faculty members, but the students also have gotten the attention of university administrators and manufacturers in the fast-growing collegiate apparel industry, which takes in about $2.5 billion a year.

Since last summer, a half-dozen universities have adopted stringent codes of conduct for manufacturers of apparel that bear their logos; many more are reexamining their policies.

Last month, after months of refusal, Nike agreed conditionally to provide locations of factories that produce collegiate clothing, and urged other manufacturers to follow its lead.

"This industry really relies on sweating the profits out of labor," said Tom Wheatley, a graduate sociology student at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, who emerged as a national figure in the movement after helping to lead a four-day takeover of the chancellor's office last month.

"They're among the worst of the worst, as far as the way workers are treated and the wages they're paid," he said. "It really is quite sick. Fourteen-year-old girls are working 100-hour weeks and earning poverty-level wages to make my college T-shirts. That's unconscionable."

Industry leaders take issue with such characterizations, arguing that their global factories create needed jobs and give the world's poorest economies a chance to grow.

Manufacturers say they pay local prevailing wages or better. And even student critics concede that in many countries, U.S.-built plants offer better conditions than others.

"When Nike has gone into a country with its manufacturing operations, wages have increased and poverty has decreased," said Nike Inc. Chief Executive Philip Knight, whose company produces a large line of collegiate apparel. "Nike, of course, is not solely responsible for that, but we have been part of that process and we are proud of it and not ashamed of it."

Still, manufacturers have long refused to disclose their factory locations or even the names of subcontractors--a central demand of students, who have peppered their arguments with anecdotal reports of worker abuse from the Dominican Republic to Vietnam.

"It was horrible," said Arlen Benjamin-Gomez, 18, a UCLA freshman who traced a Fruit of the Loom T-shirt she bought on campus to an industrial complex in Honduras where she believed it was made. "The worst thing is the pay. Workers earn only $3 a day. That might be OK if it was cheaper to live there, but it's not."

Benjamin-Gomez made the trip in September with her mother, longtime San Francisco human rights activist Medea Benjamin. For two weeks, they interviewed workers, labor leaders and human rights activists, as well as industry representatives, who said clothing assembly has created 100,000 jobs at 18 new industrial parks.

The trip resulted in a 25-minute video, dubbed "Sweating for a T-shirt," now screening to potential activists on campuses throughout California.

It is a powerful recruiting tool: Images of a clean, well-lit factory where hundreds of sewing machine operators produced Dockers pants in grim silence are interspersed with footage from the squalid shanties where the workers live.

Pro-union sympathies run strong among the students, many of whom have been coached in organizing tactics by members of the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees as well as the AFL-CIO, which has wooed college students under the leadership of President John Sweeney.

But students chafe at suggestions that their protests have been orchestrated or directly influenced by labor unions.

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