I before I put on my UWSP sweatshirt, I glance at the tag. Champs Sports, cotton, made in Lesotho. We have pride in our school, but do we ever worry about the conditions of the places where that sweatshirt has been? Where was the cotton extracted? Who assembled it?
“What I have heard anecdotally from my colleagues in the industry is that students want either brand name or cheap,” said UWSP University Store Manager Stephanie Pope. Cheap, however, comes at a cost.
“Sweat labor is highly undervalued human effort in unsafe working environments used to generate and enhance the accumulation of wealth in the global economy,” said Ismaila Odogba, Assistant Professor of Geography at UWSP.
Odogba said such labor standards lead to an “unfair system of wealth accumulation” where “the balance of power in such relationships is skewed towards the corporations and not the people.”
It is a platitudinous assertion that Wisconsin is wrapped in a controversy that started a year ago, largely over worker rights. Now, recent controversies surrounding Apple’s assembly factories in China and Adidas’ assembly plants in Indonesia don’t seem so distant.
Less than two years after students organized enough pressure on the UW – Madison administration to drop its apparel contract with the retailer Nike over reports of worker exploitation in its plants in Honduras, UW students are turning their attention on Adidas. The UW’s relationship to the retailer is worth approximately $2.5 million in royalties and equipment annually, according to a release from Feb. 14.
Adidas’ worker rights abuses included shutting down a subcontracted facility and fleeing, to the detriment of over 2,800 workers to whom the company is legally responsible for paying some $3.3 million in severance pay. On average, this debt amounts to each worker’s entire annual salary, at minimum wage.
Students have been organizing for months, drawing national attention once again at the first university to disinvest from Nike. Since, UW Chancellor David Ward has consulted the Worker Rights Consortium, an oversight agency of which UWSP is a member, and entered “a period of mediation” with Adidas, according to the release.
Student efforts to pressure a rupture culminated on Feb. 18, when students from the Student Labor Action Coalition in Madison teamed up with United Students Against Sweatshops, which had its 15th anniversary conference planned in Madison that weekend. The crowd of about 250 students chanted and carried banners that said “All day I dream about sweatshops,” on their way to Bascom Hall, the UW’s administrative building.
According to The Cap Times, the student activists then marched downtown to join a series of actions against anti-union legislation and cuts to education, perhaps drawing parallels between the economic recession, privatization and outsourcing at home, and labor exploitation in the world’s peripheral regions.
“Unfortunately, oftentimes locally produced and/or ‘American made’ products are not priced as competitively as the off-shore produced items, which makes consumers shy away from purchasing those items, and when those items don’t sell, it makes retailers shy away from offering those products,” Pope said.
Pope says UWSP does not currently contract with any apparel vendor. “We purchase from a number of vendors on an as needed basis. We require all of our vendors to supply us with codes of conduct that indicate that they will not operate or contract with vendors who exploit their workers or provide unsafe or unfair working conditions.”
“We have in the last few years stopped buying from companies that are have been cited by WRC as not meeting their fair labor standards. For example, we no longer order Nike merchandise for two reasons: first, they were cited by WRC and second, they refuse to comply with the code of conduct requirement we have for all apparel vendors,” Pope said.
In her opinion, Pope said, “The University Store and even the University of Wisconsin System is a tiny fraction of the consumers that get products from clothing producers primarily in Central America. There is little that we could do as an institution to affect the labor standards in that region.”
“A nationwide college and university pact or agreement related to labor standards would be a start, but since colleges and universities all get their athletics gear and their wholesale products from a variety of vendors I’m not sure it would ultimately be the answer,“ Pope said. “I would also venture that there are deeper geo-political questions that make any solution to labor standards in this region more difficult to achieve.”
While the future of the relationship between Adidas and the UW is not yet certain, it cannot be denied that UW students organizing for worker justice goes beyond the state’s borders.