Student protesters have spent years at the forefront of the anti-sweatshop movement, and they may now be seeing some of the fruits of their labor.
A major supplier of college apparel has brokered a unique deal, promising to pay more for garments produced by a factory in the Dominican Republic if workers there are paid a living wage. While not publicly announced by the company, the plan proposed by Knights Apparel is already drawing support in higher education. Officials at Duke and Pennsylvania State Universities have confirmed that their bookstores will be buying from the Knights Apparel factory, and a committee at the University of Connecticut is considering participation as well.
“This is one factory in one country, so we understand the limitations of that,” said Damon Sims, vice president for student affairs at Penn State. “But it’s also the first factory to be doing things the right way. It’s clear their intention is to provide workers with a verified living wage and insuring they have freedom of [unionization] rights; that is a difference that matters.”
The key word is “verified.” Penn State and a host of institutions have long had codes of conduct that require licensees to meet minimum fair labor standards, but college officials at Penn State and elsewhere concede that those codes have been nearly impossible to enforce. The Knights Apparel plan, as described by college officials, will allow an independent group – the Workers Rights Consortium  – to verify that the factory is meeting standards.
'Unprecedented Labor Rights Progress'
The Workers Rights Consortium declined to be interviewed for this story because the plan is still in development, and officials with Knights Apparel did not respond to an interview request. Inside Higher Ed obtained an e-mail, however, that provides a lengthy synopsis of the negotiations.
Scott Nova, president of the Workers Rights Consortium, said in an e-mail to a university official that Knights Apparel held “a series of extraordinary discussions” in the Dominican Republic over the weekend of Jan. 9. The discussions led to a memorandum of understanding between Knights Apparel and Grupo M, which has agreed to a series of improved labor standards – including openness to unionization -- at its factory in exchange for greater compensation from Knights Apparel. Those costs will be passed on to consumers, but university officials said they only expect garments to cost a few extra dollars.
“We are not suggesting that this represents an answer to systemic problems that continue to impede labor rights progress in university logo apparel supply chains (and the industry in general),” Nova wrote.
“However, we do believe this project represents genuine, indeed unprecedented labor rights progress – not just in the realm of university logo apparel, but for the garment industry as a whole. In terms of the labor standards (living wage and an open attitude toward collective worker representation) and in terms of the supply chain reforms involved (a fair price and commitment to buy all of a factory’s products) this project represents a step toward central goals of the ant-sweatshop movement that many have previously viewed as unreachable. We are proud to be a part of this.”
Definitions of living wage vary, but workers in the Dominican Republic could receive three times the prevailing wage for apparel workers if a living wage is adopted, Nova wrote.
As Nova explains in his e-mail, the plan has benefits for the anti-sweatshop movement that are both substantive and symbolic. The location of the factory, in the industrial zone of the Dominican Republic, is in itself symbolic. The factory will be placed in the same area where BJ&B cap factory once stood. University and student activists aided a successful effort for improved labor rights at that factory, and “the closure of the facility [in 2007] was thus a major blow to universities’ code of conduct efforts,” Nova wrote. The new facility will “provide a significant hiring preference to former BJ&B employees,” he added.
Activists Seek Broader Reforms
While some are celebrating the Knights Apparel deal, anti-sweatshop activists don’t view it as an endpoint. The Workers Rights Consortium and United Students Against Sweatshop have for years been promoting a “Designated Suppliers Program.” The program , endorsed in concept by about 40 universities, would require universities to source most of their university logo apparel to supplier factories that allow independent verification of particular labor standards, including the payment of a living wage. But the program has been met with legal challenges over potential antitrust issues, and some suggest the legal wrangling has prevented other important steps forward like the deal Knights Apparel has struck.
“The three years or so that have passed since that conversation began haven’t really produced the kind of headway that Penn State would like to see,” Sims said.
Activists on Penn State’s campus are calling the Knights Apparel deal a step forward, but are realistic about its impact in the grand scheme of the movement.
“We’re glad that Penn State is taking this first step, finally, after 10-plus years of the sweatshop free campaign on campus,” said Megan Quinn, a member of the university’s chapter of United Students Against Sweatshops. “But what we’re talking about is one brand, one factory and only 100 to 200 workers … so we are still pushing for a comprehensive program.”
Duke University is also getting on board with Knights Apparel, committing to purchase $250,000 of merchandise from the Dominican Republic factory. Jim Wilkerson, director of trademark licensing and store operations at Duke, said the investment makes sense from an altruistic standpoint and a business perspective.
“We are doing this not only because we believe in the project, but because we think that with some good creative marketing, there will be very strong demand for the product,” Wilkerson wrote in an e-mail to colleagues. “I commend Knights Apparel and look forward to working with all of you to make this effort a success.”
The University of Connecticut’s Committee on Corporate Responsibility plans to meet Friday to discuss the Knights Apparel project, and may pass along recommendations to the bookstore or university president to participate. Julie Elkins, the university’s spokeswoman on corporate social responsibly, said she was enthusiastic about the proposal.
“It is groundbreaking,” she said. “And I think that it has the most promise of really being able to institute significant change for workers and to also provide opportunities for consumers to make some different choices.”