On Wednesday afternoon, the Cornell Organization for Labor Action –– an affiliate of the national organization United Students Against Sweatshops –– brought in three Central American garment workers and union organizers to outline the changes they hope to see in the future and reflect on the importance of student support in ensuring workers’ rights.
“Forming a union in those factories wasn’t an easy task,” said Telemarque Pierre, a general coordinator of garment and textile workers in Port au Prince, Haiti. “Management uses a lot of threats to intimidate workers and keep them from organizing.”
Holding up a Syracuse University T-shirt, Pierre said that workers in his factory were forced to meet a quota of shirts per day for only a few cents an hour. He added that when workers mobilized and asked for a wage of 10 cents an hour, many were fired immediately.
Discussing the harsh conditions under which workers are forced to labor, Pierre told of workers who were hit by supervisors when they refused to be photographed and pregnant women who were allegedly made to work until the day before their delivery.
Raquel Navarro, a Honduran garment worker and union leader who earns 60 U.S. dollars a week working in a factory, said some workers “have experienced illness from repetitive motions.”
“[They] face problems with their arms, and since the Ministry of Health in our country is very weak, many of these workers are now unemployed,” Navarro said.
Pierre’s factory is one of many Gildan subsidiaries. Gildan, a Canadian apparel company, is Adidas’ largest supplier in the Western Hemisphere. Cornell severed its ties with Adidas in the spring after Adidas’ violations of Cornell’s Code of Conduct came to light. However, many universities still maintain contracts with companies like Adidas and Nike and rely on contractors like Gildan to provide collegiate apparel.
“We live in poverty in miserable conditions where wages that we earn are not enough for a family to get by. It’s especially hard for us to provide adequate health care and education for our children. Many of the female workers are single mothers and have to take out loans with high interest rates to provide for their children,” Navarro said. “This is the struggle that we are facing and why we are organizing.”
Yannick Etienne, a member of the Haitian workers’ rights organization Batay Ouvriye, criticized companies for exploiting workers who are desperate to support their families.
“Companies are producing in poor countries because they know we need these jobs, that we are starving, that we need education for our children,” Etienne said. “They are using what we need as human beings to put us down.”
The presentation also focused on past USAS campaigns, including monitoring working conditions at factories. All three workers stressed the importance of consumer support in pressuring companies to improve factory conditions.
Etienne also emphasized the crucial role of students in holding companies accountable.
“Organizing workers is a very important thing,” Etienne said. “This is why we’ve decided to organize globally. ... But if the workers are not organized, the students can’t do anything. This is a very important component in the equation. The students have to organize not only as consumers, but as citizens of the world. Together, with the students and the workers, we can change an exploitative system,” Etienne said.
Karen Li ’15, a member of COLA who works closely with USAS, praised Cornell’s leadership in fighting unfair labor practices.
“The struggles of the workers really showed us that their struggles and the work that we do as students are all very connected. Recently, the sweatshop abuses by Adidas and the rampant abuses in their supply chain have really come to light. We as Cornell students are proud that [the University has] terminated [its] business relationship with Adidas,” Li said.
Finally, all three representatives expressed their desire to build a better future not just for themselves and their co-workers, but also for their children and their country.
“We will triumph. I don’t know if I will still be alive to see this victory, but I hope my children will see it,” Etienne said.