The United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS), a nonprofit organization affiliated with the international Workers’ Rights Consortium (WRC), has demanded that Cornell support the New Sweatfree Campaign, an initiative to reward collegiate apparel factories that meet WRC standards and withdraw use of factories that classify as sweatshops.
Cornell is a member of the WRC, along with over 150 similar universities across the nation, and it is thus their responsibility to live up to WRC standards and help discourage sweatshop production, according to the USAS.
“The idea is that all of Cornell apparel is produced in non-sweatshops, safe and clean factories,” said Glynis Ritchie ’06, president of the Cornell Students Against Sweatshops (CSAS). “We want to ensure that all Cornell apparel isn’t just produced in non-sweatshops, but in decent factories that grant all workers the international right to freedom of association, along with full rights to form into unions and bargain with factory owners for their rights. We want to increase standards by supporting those factories that best enable their workers.”
Cornell has been a member of the WRC since 2000, which monitors clothing factories and reports violations in labor rights. Cornell, along with all other universities in the WRC, has received notice of sweatshops and corporations that are supplied by sweatshops, such as the Gilden shirt company, several of whose factories violated the WRC code of conduct. It also notes factories that perform especially well, along with requests by the WRC to support these factories. Included in the list of factories that have improved labor standards is the large Kukdong factory in Mexico, which supplies Nike and Reebok, and the Just Garments facility in El Salvador, which is majority union-owned.
But Cornell has not yet responded to the request by the USAS to increase support for these factories, nor to the request to respond to Gilden Ltd’s violation of the WRC code of conduct. “The greatest obstacle [to increased support] is administrative foot-dragging,” said Jordan Wells ’07, a member of the Cornell Organization for Labor Action and supporter of the New Sweatfree Campaign. “Cornell is already committed to these principles through its membership in the WRC, and now it’s a matter of when the rubber hits the road, whether or not Cornell is in fact committed to workers’s rights or is just looking for a positive PR piece.”
Examples of this foot-dragging include the administration’s delay in responding to the demands of the CSAS; a formal list was submitted to Day Hall on Sept. 28, 10 days ago, but Cornell has yet to respond to the submission. According to Wells, this lag is especially unacceptable in light of the actions of other WRC-affiliated universities of a similar caliber.
“Duke and Columbia responded immediately, within the day, to this same list of demands,” he said.
Most prominent among the demands submitted to the University was the request to aid the WRC’s financial efforts. The WRC supports well-performing factories with extra consumption of their products, essentially providing these factories with extra business for their efforts. This consumption allows these companies to remain competitive while eschewing cost-cutting measures that deprive workers of union rights and fair wages.
“We can’t be simply making these demands to these factories, we also have to be paying them a price that enables a living wage,” Wells added. “In factories where high standards for labor rights are being met, costs eventually become uncompetitive in comparison to factories with lower standards, so by supplying financial incentives, we make reform feasible.”
Ritchie said that the additional costs to Cornell students as a result of the WRC’s actions would be minimal, often as low as an extra 50 cents per T-shirt.
“The impact on the Cornell community as a whole would be negligible,” she said.
Archived article by Thomas Beckwith