Williams: no voice in sweatshop issue?

Is Williams circumventing collegiate controversy? Over the last two months, colleges and universities across the nation have been staging sit-ins in Presidents’ offices, boycotting local businesses and drafting petitions in student government organizations. For instance, in March, student activists occupied the office of University of Michigan President Lee Bollinger for 51 hours until the University caved in to their demands. The Williams campus, on the other hand, has seen no such activity. The issue of contention: foreign labor practices employed by companies that supply apparel with the school’s logo. In simpler terms: sweatshop labor.

However, Williams finds itself in a different situation, since the College does not license its logo. Instead, Goff’s Sporting Goods handles all apparel for the school. According to Bruce Goff ’83, who took over the store from his parents in 1986, there are roughly 200 different vendors from whom he buys. Some clothing – such as that produced by Jansport, TK, Lonely Creations and the Cotton Exchange – is made only in the United States. However, some of the larger labels, including Hanes, Gold Label Basics, Anvil, Champion and Gear for Sports list production sites as varied as Honduras, Mexico, Sri Lanka, and Taiwan. Goff explained that as far as he knew, all personalization – that is, the addition of the Williams logo – is made in the United States.

It is no secret that large clothing companies assemble their products in foreign countries, nor is it unknown that a major motivation is to escape America’s stringent labor laws which prohibit small wages and child labor. Companies are required by law to identify on tags where the product was assembled, but the conditions under which these garments are produced are rarely disclosed accurately without investigation from an outside source.

The difficulty of ascertaining working situations in foreign countries is precisely the reason that students have prodded 17 colleges and universities – among them Dartmouth, Harvard, Tufts, and Wellesley – to affiliate with the Fair Labor Association (FLA). FLA, a non-profit watchdog group, supervises the labor activities of companies with a large overseas production base. College sportswear alone is a $2.5 billion-a-year industry.

However, the FLA has some strong backing, including the White House. President Clinton, along with some governmental satellite groups, helped develop the original labor agreement that FLA now touts. In recent months, governmental organizations have worked with representatives from several universities and collegiate licensing organizations to secure the possibility of signing with the FLA. According to US Secretary of Labor Alexis Herman, “These schools are sending an important message – to their students, their licensees and to all consumers – that they will not tolerate university logo products that are manufactured under abusive conditions.”

Some schools, such as Wellesley College, already had student committees in place to handle the sweatshop issue. Wellesley student Sarah Holladay ’00, a member of Sweatshop-Free Campus Committee (SFCC) and College Government vice president, spoke out against the FLA agreement. “The FLA is a sort of organization,” she stated, “which is a way for companies and universities to say they’re doing something, and they’re really not.” She also asserted that the FLA is not as squeaky-clean as it appears, citing recent secessions from labor unions.

Although an email was forwarded through the Purple Druids’ listserver regarding other schools’ activism, no campus organizations have taken Williams sporting apparel up as an issue. “I don’t know of any widespread student interest on this issue,” said Purple Druids leader Becky Sanborn, “and I think that is mainly because there isn’t any widespread student knowledge about it. I think a lot of people on campus are probably not even aware that there are discussions and protests and sit-ins taking place across the country, regarding labor rights and college buying policies. If it were publicized on campus, I think there would be a lot of support for inquiries into our policies, and possibly action based on such inquiries.”

Student concern has been markedly absent to Goff, who explained that his motivation to look into labor concerns would have to stem from a consumer interest to do so. “I’m sure companies would be more than happy to provide information on labor practices,” he said. If students or consumers were interested in the issue, Goff said, it would be best for them to present him with a petition and specific questions, which he could pass on to his individual vendors.

Sanborn does mention that the issue has been talked about it certain circles. “We have discussed this in CEAC [Campus Environmental Advisory Committee], and it seems like an issue that CEAC might at some point look into, although there are no plans right now to officially take that on as an issue.”

The Committee on Shareholder Responsibility also reported no student inquiries surrounding the sweatshop issue, though they were interested in hearing more about the issue. Committee members pointed to a history of interest and activism as far as human rights and labor practices. In the past, they have supported both the McBride provision in Ireland, which calls for equal employment opportunities to Protestants and Catholics, as well as the Sullivan statute in South Africa, which requires equal wages for blacks and whites.

Goff claimed that Williams College is not a shareholder in Goff’s, and therefore has no jurisdiction in monitoring practices. Goff stressed again that his consumer base would be the most substantial motivation for his requesting vendors for information.

He also explained that without enforcement of regulations, companies would not be impelled to relocate their production lines to America. “As it stands,” he said, “there is no way [for apparel companies] to be competitive and source everything domestically.”

Duke University’s Director of trademark licensing and stored operations Jim Wilkerson expressed the sentiment of many of the recent FLA affiliates. “We cannot tolerate having products that bear Duke’s trademarks being manufactured in abusive and unfair labor conditions. In addition to being the right thing to do, it is what good business means today.”

Sanborn expressed hope that students would take action once informed. “I have heard of some student interest, mainly on an individual basis, or in smaller circles,” she said. “There are definitely people on campus who are concerned about this, myself included, and I think these issues would be – and are – important to a lot different groups within the Williams community. I think [other schools’] efforts have been extremely effective, and exciting, as activism seems to be creeping back into the campus mentality, across the nation.”

Schools that have signed with the FLA include University of Arizona, Brown University, Columbia University, Cornell University, Dartmouth College, Duke University, Florida State University, Harvard University, Marymount University, the University of Notre Dame, the University of Pennsylvania, Princeton University, Rutgers University, Smith College, Tufts University, Wellesley College, and Yale University.

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *