Anti-sweatshop protests heat up at colleges around the nation; Williams to join the fray

While Williams students were setting up tables in the Baxter mailroom to promote their various causes, like-minded students at the University of Wisconsin at Madison were trying to force their way into the chancellor’s office with a board of nails. Police officers were forced to use pepper spray to keep them at bay. The reason for the student agitation was the university’s decision to join the Fair Labor Association (FLA), a White House endorsed sweatshop watchdog.

But since six of the 14 seats on the board of directors are held by corporate representatives, students refer to it as “a corporate cover-up sponsored by Nike and Kathie Lee.” Wisconsin and the University of Pennsylvania, whose students participated in a sit-in protest lasting nine days, both agreed to withdraw from the Association. They became the first schools to do so since the FLA was formed in June of 1999.

Concerned that sweatshops in developing nations are producing large amounts of college apparel, students nation-wide have been pushing their schools to adopt stricter codes of conduct. Many feel that the FLA is not doing the job well enough. Their grievances with the association are not merely limited to amount of power corporations have over the counsel as compared to universities (there is one seat on the board of directors for the 129 member schools).

Lack of a living wage, disregard for women’s rights and announced inspections that would give factories time to cover up their infractions topped the list of complaints outlined by United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS) in a press release last April.

The release also attacked the practice of interviewing factory employees in front of their supervisors. Lee Palmer, a member of an anti-sweatshop student group at Michigan University, visited Honduras and El Salvador in the spring saw the consequences of such a practice: “I spoke with women who worked in factories…who had had monitors come through the factories…. They were asked questions in front of their bosses about conditions and so they didn’t tell the monitors the same things that they were telling us when we interviewed them in their homes or in other neutral places…. [The monitors] are not getting the truth and that’s a real concern.”

The growing discontentment with the FLA has given the Workers Rights Consortium (WRC), a rival labor rights group, a strong following in the college community. Developed by the USAS, the Consortium stresses respect for women’s rights and a living wage. So far, only Brown, Haverford, Loyola University New Orleans, Bard and Oberlin have joined.

Sam Brown, executive director of the FLA, spoke with the Record in order to defend the association from what he feels are misinformed opinions: “I’ve seen some of the stuff that has been printed about the FLA, and frankly it just reflects either a conscious desire to misunderstand, or misinformation.” He pointed to the outcry against the power structure of the board of directors as a prime example. He called the division of power among six corporate, six labor/non-governmental, and one university representative along with a chairman, “carefully-balanced.”

Furthermore, Brown pointed to the fact that the WRC recently shifted its stance on the living wage to a position very similar to that held by the FLA. Finally, he asked why the FLA was seen as pandering to corporate America when only a handful had agreed to abide by its code of conduct. “The reason that there are only 11 companies that belong [to the FLA] is because it’s a very high hurdle.”

Meanwhile, the Williams campus has yet to see students shackle themselves to the President’s office in University of Wisconsin fashion. The reason, however, has less to do with indifference than with an administration that is willing to talk and a somewhat unique college store. According to Jim Mahon, associate professor of political science and chair of the political economy program, “Williams differs from Penn and many other schools in two respects. Firstly, the College does not own a bookstore from which it sells Williams-logo goods. Secondly, the College does not license its name to retailers or manufacturers of branded goods. Thus, as I understand it, the College does not make a profit, either by commercial gain or by license fees, from the use of its name or logo on items for sale.”

Even so, some Williams students have formed a group in the hopes of persuading the school to align itself with the WRC. Contact Malin Pinsky ’03 for further details about the organization.