University Sweatshop Investigation May Not Make a Difference Overseas

Documenting sweatshop abuses is the easy part. Taking action gets more complicated.

The investigative body examining allegations that Colorado University merchandise may have been manufactured in a Chinese sweatshop says that even if disciplinary action is taken against the company making the goods, there is no guarantee that the situation will change for the Chinese workers.

In a recent report issued by the National Labor Committee, an international human rights organization, CU golf merchandise was found to be connected to an alleged sweatshop in southern China, where mostly young women were reported to have been paid less than half of the Chinese minimum wage and forced to work in unsafe and unsanitary conditions.

The factory was later found to be owned by a Chinese company named Full Start, which was supplying a business named Team Golf, an official licensee with CU that makes divot tool packs and embroidered towels with the Buffaloes logo.

When news broke about the report’s findings, CU contacted the Workers Rights Consortium (WRC), a nonprofit organization affiliated with the university that conducts independent monitoring of factories around the globe. CU said that the WRC would be investigating the sweatshop allegations for the university.

However, even if the university and its licensee Team Golf cut ties to Full Start, it might not make a difference for Chinese workers in the factory, says Scott Nova, executive director of the WRC.

“Small companies in the U.S. buy products in factories in place like China, which have dozens of customers,” Nova says, noting that it’s not even clear if Team Golf has the financial influence to change the behavior of Full Start.

Instead, Nova points to a larger problem with global supply chains and says to be safe, universities should adopt the WRC’s Designated Supplier Program, which requires many university licensees to source their products from supplier factories that have been OK’d through independent monitors like the WRC. Under the program, licensees must also comply with labor standards and ensure that workers making the merchandise receive a living wage and have the right to join a union if they want to.

In April 2006, CU students with the Coalition Against Sweatshop Apparel held a hunger strike in an effort to get the university to adopt the Designated Supplier Program. Eight days later, CU officially accepted the program, after a favorable recommendation from the school’s Licensing Advisory Committee. The program hasn’t been implemented at CU yet, because the school is waiting for legal decisions from the federal Justice Department regarding certain provisions of the program before deciding to move forward, according to university spokesman Bronson Hilliard.

Claudia Ebel, a junior student at CU and an organizer with United Students Against Sweatshops, a group involved in the anti-sweatshop coalition on campus, says that while students have worked hard to push the DSP, responsibility ultimately comes down to the consumer.

“We have adopted the DSP, but it hasn’t been implemented at all,” Ebel says. “It’s really up to the consumer to address these issues, and most of the companies aren’t going to do it without consumers. People need to be engaged in what they’re buying.”

As for the investigation, Nova says that WRC is attempting to contact Full Start to determine its position on the issue, and that “if the factory is found in violation, then it’s up to the licensees to do what it can to correct the problem, and if it fails to do so then the university decides what to do with it.”

“Labor conditions in China are horrendous,” he says. “Compliance is poor in almost all cases. Factories get away with whatever they can get away with until they get caught. It just isn’t clear that the university companies are in a position to do anything about it.”

Team Golf did not return a request for comment, and attempts to contact Full Start were unsuccessful.

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About the Author

Erin Rosa

Erin Rosa was born in Spain and raised in Colorado Springs. She is a freelance writer currently living in Denver. Rosa's work has been featured in a variety of news outlets including the Huffington Post, Democracy Now!, and the Rocky Mountain Chronicle, an alternative-weekly in Northern Colorado where she worked as a columnist covering the state legislature.

Rosa has received awards from the Society of Professional Journalists for her reporting on lobbying and woman's health issues. She was also tapped with a rare honorable mention award by the Newspaper Guild-CWA's David S. Barr Award in 2008--only the second such honor conferred in its nine-year history--for her investigative series covering the federal government's Supermax prison in the state.

Rosa covers the labor community, corrections, immigration and government transparency matters.

She can be reached at erosa@coloradoindependent.com.

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