Chris Hu ’06 and Joshua Bauchner ‘07.5: Quitting sweatshop labor

Brown can make a meaningful intervention in the world economy by adopting the Designated Suppliers Program

By and
Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Last Friday, the Brown Student Labor Alliance held a rally in front of University Hall to demand that the University administration eliminate the use of sweatshop labor in the manufacturing of Brown clothing and apparel. Last September, the SLA submitted a proposal to the University administration, asking that Brown adopt a Designated Suppliers Program, which would revise the University’s procedures for ordering these garments. In proposing the DSP, we were joined by United Students Against Sweatshops affiliates at 40 other schools as part of a nationwide student campaign to ensure that the university apparel industry encourages responsible manufacturing rather than sweatshops. More than six months later, as other universities across the country have begun to sign on to the DSP, Brown has yet to make a decision on the SLA’s proposal.

Currently, it is nearly impossible to know exactly where any given piece of Brown apparel is produced, and we have every reason to believe that it was made by workers subjected to dangerous working conditions, paltry wages, intimidation and sexual assault – that is, all the hallmarks of “sweatshop” production. By adopting the DSP, which would consolidate the production of Brown apparel in a smaller number of responsible factories, our University can take a practical step toward improving the lives of workers in the developing world.

The DSP, if adopted, would require that licensees contracted to produce Brown University apparel, such as Champion and Adidas, order garments from a list of factories approved by the Worker Rights Consortium, a monitoring group of which Brown is a member, that meet certain minimum standards: (1) that they abide by already-enacted university codes of conduct, which includes monitoring by the WRC; (2) that their workers be represented by a union or other representative employee body; (3) that they pay a locally-determined “living wage”; and (4) that they produce primarily or exclusively for the university apparel market. The program would be phased in over several years, allowing time for adjustments by universities, licensees and factories to accommodate the new system.

Eventually, after discussion of the DSP by the Brown University Community Council in November 2005, President Ruth Simmons created a Designated Suppliers Program Working Group, headed by Vice President for Administration Walter Hunter, to study the matter. The working group has been meeting throughout the course of this semester, and has produced valuable discussion and debate, but it has become clear that the group has reached an impasse. Though the DSP has already been adopted by a growing number of schools – including Duke, Georgetown and Cornell universities – Brown’s DSP Working Group has stalled just when we need the University administration to finally take the lead on this issue.

Although there is broad consensus within the working group that the goals of the DSP are desirable, there has been disagreement as to whether the specific plan submitted by the SLA is feasible. Unsurprisingly, most objections to the DSP as it currently stands are economic in nature. Specifically, some fear that the DSP will hurt the very workers it claims to be helping.

As we have stressed from the beginning, the effects of the DSP are purely positive for garment workers. Factories in the apparel industry are not permanently tied to brands, but rather subcontracted based on infinitesimal wage and benefit differentials between factories that produce high profits for licensees. While consumers receive similar products for similar prices no matter where the apparel is produced, workers face unstable and uncertain demand for their services. Under the DSP, however, the additional costs resulting from higher wages and better working conditions will be borne primarily by licensees, while the per garment price change passed along to consumers is cents on the dollar.

The stable orders that would result from the DSP would allow factories and workers with independent unions and decent working conditions to survive and thrive in this volatile industry. In February, the SLA brought to campus a touring group of workers from garment factories in Mexico, El Salvador and the Dominican Republic. Each of these factories has an independent labor union, but each is struggling, as licensees withdraw orders in favor of factories that pay lower wages. The DSP would allow these “good” factories to survive and hire new workers, as well as providing the incentive for union organizing drives at other factories, which would then be able to take advantage of stable, DSP-created orders.

Ultimately, paying factory workers a living wage in countries like El Salvador costs very little in terms of lost profit margins for licensees and higher prices for consumers, but it would make a big difference for those who sew Brown sweatshirts. Unfortunately, without the DSP, licensees have no incentive to place orders with factories that respect workers’ rights. Furthermore, by requiring factories to have an independent worker-organized union, the DSP will prevent abuse and corruption present in both non-union and state union factories.

On April 21, officials from those universities that have signed the DSP will be meeting with the WRC to discuss the logistical details of the program. We urge the Brown community to push the administration toward adopting the DSP in time for this meeting.

Chris Hu ’06 and Joshua Bauchner ‘07.5 read the Providence Business News.