Members of the Make UT Sweatshop Free Coalition on April 18 staged a sit-in at the University of Texas at Austin to demand that UT get serious about ending sweatshop abuses in factories that make apparel bearing UT’s logo by joining the Workers Rights Consortium (WRC), an independent factory monitoring organization. The sit-in took place in the office of UT President William Powers.
Currently UT is affiliated with the Fair Labor Association, a group dominated and created by the apparel industry after sweatshop scandals in the 1990s forced companies to respond to labor abuses that were damaging their brands.
“In 2010, companies like Nike made more than $100 million selling Longhorn apparel (manufactured) in over 4,400 factories around the world; yet their workers are deprived of wages they can survive on, face sexual harassment, and even risk their lives in the fight for dignity and respect,” said Billy Yates, a member of Students Against Sweatshops at the University of Texas and a sit-in participant. “For years, we’ve asked that the University live up to its core values and join over 180 universities across the country to put an end to this abuse by joining the WRC. President Powers has repeatedly told us that this ‘case is closed,’ but 25 student and community groups in Texas have joined the Make UT Sweatshop-Free Coalition to let him know that students and workers won’t let him close the case on workers’ rights.”
A rally to continue the campaign to make UT get serious about sweatshop abuse is scheduled on campus today, April 19. Coalition members will read support letters they received from garment workers around the world. The rally begins at 12 noon on campus.
The sit-in began in President Powers office about 12:30 yesterday. By late afternoon a large crowd gathered outside the Main Building where Powers’ office is located to demonstrate support for the sit-in. About 5:00 P.M., police muscled their way through supporters on the outside and began arresting sit-in participants. The Daily Texan, UT’s student newspaper, reports that 19 people were arrested, 17 of whom were UT students.
The current campaign to get UT to switch its affiliation from the Fair Labor Association to the Workers’ Rights Consortium has been going on since 2010. The UT Student Government endorsed affiliation with WRC, but UT administrators have refused to take action.
According to the Collegiate Licensing Company, UT makes more money off the sales of university-logo apparel such as sweatshirts and souvenir team jerseys than any other institution in the world. Nike is the top supplier of UT-logo apparel and Nike also provides uniforms and equipment for the school’s athletic teams.
Nike was and remains an important member of the Fair Labor Association, whose stated purpose is ”to combine the efforts of business, civil society organizations, and colleges and universities to promote and protect workers’ rights and to improve working conditions globally through adherence to international standards.”
But critics have called FLA’s efforts ineffective and blamed its lack of effectiveness on its close ties to apparel companies. “The Fair Labor Association is largely a fig leaf,” said Jeff Ballinger, director of Press for Change to the New York Times. “There’s all this rhetoric from corporate social responsibility people and the big companies that they want to improve labor standards, but all the pressure seems to be going in the other direction–they’re trying to force down prices.”
The Times reported one example of FLA’s ineffectiveness involving a Nike subcontractor, PT Nikomas of Indonesia. The company was recently forced to pay 4,500 of its workers $950,000 in unpaid overtime accumulated over the last two years.
The Nike subcontractor made restitution after some of its workers complained and the Workers’ Rights Consortium got involved. When the Times asked Jorge Perez-Lopez, FLA’s executive director, why FLA didn’t uncover and act on the abuse, he replied that FLA couldn’t inspect every factory and that Nike was responsible for monitoring its own subcontractors.
UT spokesperson Gary Susswein told the Daily Texan that UT would not join the Workers’ Rights Consortium because it would cost too much. The cost, according to Susswein, would be $50,000, about 0.025 percent of UT’s $2 billion operating budget or less that 1 percent of UT football coach Mack Brown’s $5.1 million annual salary.