February 21, 2007

Students Pressure C.U. On Apparel Licensing

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Do you know where your Cornell sweatshirt came from? That is the fundamental question student-activist groups Cornell Organization for Labor Action and the Cornell chapter of United Students Against Sweatshops are asking as they attempt to hold the University accountable for where they license out their apparel. Cornell signed on more than a year ago to the Designated Suppliers Program, an agreement designed to hold factories accountable for the working conditions of laborers, but the University has yet to implement the elements of that program.

On Sept. 28, 2005, a group of students in conjunction with the United Students Against Sweatshops presented the DSP contract to the administration, requesting “that university apparel be made in a set of designated sweat-free factories in which workers are able to enforce their rights through unionization and earn a living wage.” The conditions of this agreement stipulate that factories which provide university clothing must “demonstrate full respect for the worker rights standards in university codes of conduct” and “the factories’ employees must be represented by a legitimate, representative labor union or other representative employee body.”

According to Marlene Ramos ’09, president of CSAS, while the University has signed on to the agreement, much of the apparel sold in the Cornell Store is produced using sweatshops because such clothing is relatively cheap to produce and can be made in mass quantities.

“Just because we’ve adopted the contract doesn’t mean we’re free of sweatshop apparel,” Ramos said. “The school has yet to take direct action to implement this program.”

That is not to say the University has not tried to make strides in implementing the DSP. Wes Hannah ’07, a member of COLA, asserted that “the administration has been very amiable working with us but a lot more still needs to be done.”
Ramos commented that COLA and CSAS have both short-term and long-term strategies to put pressure on the administration in order to affect where university apparel is licensed out.

“In the short term, Cornell could purchase clothing directly from sweat-free factories even if it’s as small as an order of 500 sweatshirts,” Ramos said, “which would suggest an ongoing effort to go away from sweatshops. But the primary goal is to take a more systematic approach to employing the DSP.”

In the wake of the recent Sweatfree Day of Action held across the nation on Jan. 31, COLA and SAS are intensifying their efforts to ensure that DSP is upheld by the University and that any apparel associated with Cornell does not originate from exploited workers.

To demonstrate their solidarity on Sweatfree Day of Action, a group of COLA students drove to a JC Penney in Binghamton, NY, in hopes of supporting workers who have gone several months without pay from the store’s factory in Kenya. Hannah, who was part of that group of students, believes that the town responded well to its presence.

“Binghamton is a union town,” he said. “They were receptive to our message.”
However, there has been some criticism that forcing the University to adopt the DSP will drive up the retail prices of collegiate apparel. But Ramos contested that prices would change at most by 25 to 50 cents.
She also said that this minimal increase in price is worth the sacrifice if it means protecting workers from inhumane working conditions and daily wages that consist of a mere 98 cents.

According to Sweatshop Watch, garment workers are continually subjected to verbal abuse and sexual harassment in addition to unfair pay. She elaborated that since globalization has made a stronger effect on the economy, companies are under greater pressure to produce more clothing, often at the workers’ expense.

“Garment industry conditions have actually worsened in recent years,” she explained.
Currently, CSAS and COLA are in the process of setting up the regional Northeast United Students Against Sweatshops Conference to be held at Cornell. Hannah said the aim of the meeting is to gather schools that are signed onto the DSP at the same level as Cornell and discuss their progress in holding their institutions responsible for providing sweat-free apparel in their campus stores and athletic programs.

Ultimately, he said, USAS has reached a critical mass where if people do not start putting pressure on their administrations, the effort to get sweatshop apparel out of colleges on a national level will be futile.

“We need a lot more energy across the nation to see real change in forcing schools to adopt sweat-free clothing,” he added. “Otherwise the campaign is not as successful.”

Fortunately for COLA and CSAS, the DSP campaign at Cornell has a powerful figure in its corner. One of President David Skorton’s last actions before leaving the University of Iowa was signing the DSP for UI.