February 5, 2009

COLA Brings Sweatshop Issue to Cornell

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The problem of sweatshop labor met the ivory tower on Tuesday in Ives Hall, as representatives from a closed Honduran Russell Athletics factory pleaded for students to support them in their crusade against the clothing giant.
“This particular factory went through a particularly hard battle to recognize a union,” said Marlene Ramos ’09, a member of the Cornell Organization for Labor Action who also helped translate the Spanish dialect of the workers.
The workers were Moises Elias a Bovado, who was president of the workers union of Jerzees de Honduras, and Norma Estela Mejia Castellano, vice president of the oppressed union. Jerzees de Honduras, the factory, began facing internal struggles late last year, as Bovado and Castellano struggled to form a workers union. The union was necessary to correct a number of unsanitary and illegal practices. Among the managerial slights against workers, the most offensive included unsanitary bathrooms and water, blocked fire escapes and insufficient medical attention during work hours.
“We had very high quotas of production within the factory, and we had to work extra hours without pay to complete these quotas,” Bovado said. “Management kept a very hostile environment in the factory.”
As workers grew fed up with the exploitation and abuse, the nascent sentiments of unionizing began to materialize into legitimate action. On Oct. 5, 2007, the union was officially formed, but it faced immediate backlash from the upper management. Bovado said that many union members received death threats. Later that month, the factory was shut down, putting 1,800 laborers out of a job, and in Castellano’s words, “throwing us out to the streets.”
“It is very important for us workers from Jerzees de Honduras to gain our jobs back, as jobs are very scarce in Honduras,” Castellano said. “We’ve seen a great deal of injustices towards us, and the authorities have done very little for us.”
Of the 1,800 workers fired, 750 were union members. According to the Worker Rights Consortium, a human rights watchdog group, there is extensive evidence that the closing of the factory was related to the unionization of the workers, including specific admissions from the management that workers’ “associational activities” played a role in the factory shut down. The WRC contends that the closing of Jerzees de Honduras violates numerous university codes of conduct, as Russell Athletics has apparel contracts with schools across the nation.
After the factory was shut down, Bovado and Castellano made it a point to travel to the United States and lobby for Russell Athletics to take accountability. Among the other universities in their nationwide tour to raise awareness of their plight is Pennsylvania State University and the University of Maryland, College Park.
COLA sponsored the speech by Bovado and Castellano to serve as a medium for their message, and hopes to continue working to bring justice to Russell Athletics.
“We’ve been talking with [University director of operations] Mike Powers. We’ve also been talking with the head of procurement at the Cornell Store,” said Stephanie Knight ’09, president of COLA. “Russell has a history of not allowing unions.”
Knight mentioned that, although the athletic department has a contract with Russell, the Cornell Store has the power to stop ordering apparel from the company to stock its shelves. Prior to their talk with students, Bovado and Castellano were in a meeting with University personnel about possibly severing any contracts with Russell. The results of the meeting were somewhat ambiguous, with no date set for official University action against Russell. Representatives from the Cornell Store were unavailable for comment.
However, for Bovado and Castellano, their crusade will not stop until they get their jobs back. With the official factory closure dated for March, time is running out to make their case heard. Castellano mentioned the questionability of her children’s future as one factor pushing her in her mission.
“The big question my two children ask me is, ‘Mommy, can we receive an education?’ and the answer is, ‘No, there’s no jobs, so no money for education,’” Castellano said. The duo’s next stop is Omaha, Nebraska, where they will confront Berkshire Hathaway executives to plead their case. Berkshire Hathaway owns Russell, as well as numerous other brands, and holds major clout in the decision to reopen the factory.
“We know that this is a very powerful country, and you all have lots of power in this matter,” said Castellano. “It’s really necessary that you all are in solidarity with us.”