A step toward the sweat-free sweatshirt: BMC endorses labor-practices proposal

Posted April 10th, 2008 at 2:11 pm.

Tung photoAt the urging of student activists, Bryn Mawr has joined the ranks of colleges and universities endorsing the Designated Suppliers Program, an ambitious new framework for collective action against sweatshop labor practices, President Nancy J. Vickers and the BMC Sweatshop-Free Coalition have announced.

For nearly a decade, the College has required the companies that produce Bryn Mawr apparel, including athletic uniforms, to commission goods only from factories that will agree to abide by a code of conduct regarding fair labor practices, says Chief Administrative Officer Jerry Berenson. But the College lacked monitoring and enforcement mechanisms to ensure compliance.

Bryn Mawr will now become a dues-paying member of the Worker Rights Consortium (WRC), a group of 181 colleges and universities that pool resources and purchasing power to investigate working conditions in clothing factories around the world and pressure corporations to buy from factories that respect workers’ rights.

But the proposed Designated Suppliers Program (DSP), which has just over 40 signatories so far, goes beyond the WRC’s current protocol. The WRC plans to implement the program when the number and market power of signatories reaches a critical mass sufficient to have an impact on clothing-industry giants.

“The problem with the current model is that there are so many factories, and international corporations freely move their business from factory to factory in a constant search for cheaper labor. Once factories offer better working conditions, they can no longer compete with sweatshops” says Diana Tung ’10, who founded the BMC Sweatshop-Free Coalition, an alliance of six student organizations.

“Clothing factories are under intense pressure to produce cheap goods. At the moment, garment workers are paid so little that a factory might be able to double its workers’ wages and increase the price of a $40 sweatshirt by only 75 cents, but that 75 cents per shirt often means that a corporation will withdraw its business and find cheaper labor elsewhere.” Tung explains.

“So the agreements don’t really have teeth unless we can impose some conditions not only on the factories, but also on the corporations that buy from them. The DSP will prevent corporations from dropping suppliers that respect workers’ rights in favor of suppliers that exploit workers to achieve marginally lower prices,” Tung says.

Under the new system, factories will still be required to adhere to a workers’ rights code – one that is stricter than the current code in that it includes a living wage. But the corporations that buy from them will in turn be required to meet certain obligations to their suppliers, to make it possible for factories to maintain compliance. The three most important conditions, in the language of the proposal:

  • Licensees [companies licensed to sell clothing bearing the logos of member schools] are required to pay a price to suppliers commensurate with the actual cost of producing under applicable labor standards, including payment of a living wage
  • they are required to maintain long-term relationships with suppliers
  • they are required to ensure that each supplier factory participating in the program receives sufficient orders so that the majority of the factory’s production is for the collegiate market.

The Sweatshop-Free Coalition (which comprises One World Activists, BMC Greens, Batten House environmental collective, the Office of Intercultural Affairs’ Community Diversity Assistants, and the Bryn Mawr chapters of Amnesty International and Students for a Democratic Society) began its campaign for the College’s endorsement of the DSP on Valentine’s Day at Vickers’ office in Taylor Hall. The students delivered a letter and a collection of 40 balloons, one representing each of the 40 schools that had already signed on.

According to Tung, they found a receptive audience in Vickers.

“No one at Bryn Mawr wants to support companies that engage in abusive labor practices,” Vickers says, “and I am eager to endorse efforts to prevent such abuses. The tricky part is identifying an effective strategy to achieve that goal.”

“The students made a convincing argument that the current anti-sweatshop framework is inadequate to counter the market pressures on factories that agree to our code of conduct. The new proposal appears to promise far better chances of success in improving the working conditions of the people who make Bryn Mawr-themed clothing.”

Next, Vickers referred the student activists to Berenson for a discussion of the nitty-gritty details of the program.

“I had a lot of questions,” says Berenson. “I wanted to know more about how it would work — who would sign the contracts, who would determine what a living wage was, and how it would be monitored. And of course, I was concerned about how much it would increase the cost of the apparel.”

“The students did some more research and got back to me right away with the answers to my questions, including an economist’s analysis of how much it would raise prices, which was only a few percent,” Berenson continued.

According to Nancy Steffan, the WRC’s assistant director of policy and communications, “Student activists have played a critical role in bringing the sweatshop issue to the attention of universities. United Students Against Sweatshops proposed the Designated Suppliers Program initially.”

Tung attended the USAS conference this February and came back invigorated and ambitious.

“It made me realize that students really do have a lot of power during our four years of college, if we act collectively,” she says.

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