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Trupin '13: Brown should stand with Indonesian workers

Earlier this year, 2,800 workers in Curug, Indonesia suddenly found themselves without jobs when their factory, PT Kizone, was closed down. The owner had fled, leaving the workers without the severance pay that was legally owed them — an amount totaling $3.3 million. Former machine operator Budi, 29, described the situation of his family and of many others: "We can't find food, drink — if we can eat even once a day, we say thank you to God."

These people are in dire straits, but they struggle on the other side of the world from Providence. Surely this does not concern us.

But it does. These workers made apparel for companies including the familiar college apparel giants Adidas and Nike. Brown's varsity athletic teams are sponsored by Adidas, and it is quite possible that these workers once sewed Brown University logos. Brown is not directly responsible, of course, for the crime that has been done to these workers, but we are all clearly connected to them through Brown's business relationship with Adidas.

No one can pay these workers what they are owed other than the companies for whom they made apparel. Yet these brands, including Adidas, have refused to pay. They refuse on the grounds that they did not directly employ the workers at PT Kizone, and therefore the wage theft is none of their concern. Nike is a partial exception because it has agreed to pay a percentage of the severance money that it claims is equivalent to the percentage of Nike orders in the factory's total output. This so-called "partial responsibility" approach is problematic, as it would suggest that Nike is not wholly responsible for ensuring that their clothing is made in factories that are ethical and that follow the law. But Adidas and the others will not follow even this modest example.

The subcontracted status of labor is a classic excuse that companies use to deny responsibility for conditions of the workers who make the product they market. For many brands, the opportunity that subcontracting provides to distance their names from such unpleasant words as "sweatshops" and "worker abuse" is one of the appealing aspects of this business strategy. As brands subcontract their orders to factories around the globe, and as those factories themselves subcontract the most dangerous and labor-intensive piecework to even smaller units, the relationships between brands and workers become increasingly difficult to trace. According to a study by Women Working Worldwide, wages, the quality of working conditions and the formality of contractual obligations between worker and boss decrease as the complexity of subcontracting increases. For example, 95 percent of the Indian workers in a survey did not even have a contract letter from their employer.

While we at Brown may not have the power to stop brands like Adidas from preying upon their workers as subcontracted labor, we can at least refuse to accept the twisted logic that brands use to deny the causal relationship between their actions as bidders for dirt-cheap labor and the conditions and abuses that the workers endure.

But this is not all that Brown can do. The Fair Labor Association, an organization I described in a previous column ("Celebrating 10 years of the Worker Rights Consortium," Sept. 27), categorically refuses to acknowledge that brands have any responsibility for their subcontracted workers. In a case of wage theft in Honduras similar to that at PT Kizone, the Fair Labor Association held that Nike had no responsibility to pay workers $2.5 million in severance when two of their supplier factories shut down in 2009. Though Nike was eventually pressured by public opinion into paying the severance, the Fair Labor Association still maintains that they had no obligation to do so and will continue to side with brands in every wage theft case in the foreseeable future.

To help remove this obstacle to justice for workers, the University should disaffiliate from the Fair Labor Association. As long as it remains affiliated, we are obliged to support it both monetarily — yes, our tuition dollars are going to that shameless organization — and symbolically. As long as Brown's name is attached to it, our prestige is window dressing that they can flaunt every time they list us among their affiliates.

This is why I, along with many other students who are aware of this issue, want our University both to disaffiliate as soon as possible from the Fair Labor Association and to send an unequivocal message to Adidas: As your business partners, we will not tolerate your neglect of the legal and human rights of the people who make our apparel.

Members of the Student Labor Alliance delivered messages Oct. 7 to President Ruth Simmons' office and to the office of Director of Athletics Michael Goldberger saying exactly that. The letters called on the administration to respond within 10 days — that is to say, by today. As Simmons completes her final year in office, I hope that she will be able to add "standing with Indonesian workers" to her list of achievements.

Ian Trupin '13 believes that one day, brands will stop cheating their workers. Impossible is nothing.



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