Fair-labor advocates will scrutinize sources of apparel and other goods bearing Washington State University logos in the wake of the school’s decision to join two nonprofit organizations devoted to ending sweatshop labor.
WSU joined the Washington, D.C.-based Worker Rights Consortium and Fair Labor Association on Wednesday following a recent student protest, said Mel Taylor, WSU’s executive director of real estate operations and external affairs. The Cougars join at least 174 post-secondary schools that participate in the consortium and 200 in the association.
“It was a pretty easy decision for us,” Taylor said. “We enjoyed our best year in trademark royalties last year, but from our way of thinking, one incidence of slave or sweatshop labor erases any kind of positive off that. Being an institute of higher education, I don’t want to put down retailers, but we’re on a different plane.”
The university made roughly $800,000 in royalties last year, Taylor said.
The consortium drew headlines in 2000 when Nike founder Phil Knight temporarily severed his philanthropic ties with the University of Oregon after officials there joined, decisions both parties later reversed. WSU’s move will affect apparel-makers licensed by the university, including Spokane-based CB Apparel, which makes crimson shirts and other merchandise.
Licensees will need to begin providing “full and regularly updated public disclosure of all factory locations, including those of contractors and subcontractors within the next three months,” according to a news release. WSU also will begin evaluating and adopting a manufacturing code of conduct outlining requirements for wages, hours, overtime and other labor issues.
The Progressive Student Union, which staged a sweatshop protest last week, called joining the consortium “institutional recognition that a majority of Cougar apparel is made in sweatshops and hopes it will catalyze further necessary action.”
Taylor disagreed with the group’s assertion.
The university wants to make sure sweatshop labor isn’t used, he said, “but we in no way are saying that the majority of stuff we buy comes from sweatshop labor, because I don’t think that’s true.”
Before joining the consortium, there was “no way for us to know” about labor conditions, said sophomore Chelsea Tremblay, a 19-year-old political science major who organized the anti-sweatshop campaign.
“It’s almost a matter of fact now that when contractors are competing with each other to keep contracts with apparel companies, they have to give companies the lowest price possible” and depress wages, she said.
The university expects to give $6,000 to $8,000 annually from licensing revenues in fees to each organization that monitors factories, produces reports and works to address rights violations.
“We don’t mind taking that hit because we figure that’s money well-spent,” Taylor said, adding that it allows the organizations to put investigators in the field.
The consortium employs 16, half overseas, said executive director Scott Nova. He declined to comment on conditions specific to WSU suppliers.
While the consortium has documented a number of “serious violations” of work standards, he said, there are deeper problems in the global apparel industry “that make it difficult to improve conditions and difficult to sustain the improvements that are achieved.”
WSU contracts with Russell Athletic for its on-field jerseys, Taylor said.
WSU’s new president, Elson Floyd, signed the agreements during a ceremony in his office.
“We were really fortunate that we got this new president who believes in our cause, and he believes in listening to students, and everything just seemed to fall into place,” Tremblay said.
Other regional consortium and association members include the University of Washington, Western Washington University and Seattle University. No Idaho schools had joined either as of late August.
WSU officials already scrutinize would-be licensees for design appropriateness and treatment. Joining the organizations will allow the school to take into account where and how items are made, Taylor said.
CB Apparel, formerly Cuda Buffalo Apparel, will face audits, which translates into extra costs, said Zane Troester, Internet executive.
Although CB Apparel uses “mainstream” distributors, “it’s harder and harder these days to get true American-made products,” he said.
About 15 students turned out for the Oct. 3 protest, despite chilly temperatures, Tremblay said. Students wore unconventional attire such as cardboard boxes and garbage bags to demonstrate they’d rather go naked than wear sweatshop clothing, she said.
“Because of the temperature, it was a great way to get people to notice us,” she said.