Oversight Can End University's Role in Labor Exploitation

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Esperanza. "Hope" in English. That was the name of the one of the many courageous women we had the privilege of meeting during a recent trip to Tijuana to tour maquiladora factories. Although we did not get to tour any working garment maquilas, or garment factories, Esperanza embodied the struggle of all sweatshop workers.

She worked in a pipe factory and her job was to scrub the pipes with a lead-based chemical. The chemical was supposed to be diluted with water, but her boss did not tell her this and there were no warning labels so she used it full-strength to do her job. Over the many years that she worked there, she developed a skin disease from the lead; she went to the local clinic to get medication but it was owned by the maquila and doctors said the medicine was too expensive.

Esperanza's lead poisoning was obvious: her face was covered with a thin, grayish substance which looked almost like a layer of clay. When we met her, she was in the process of filing a law suit against her factory to receive compensation for her skin disease. Our group gasped with dismay when Esperanza told us how when she complained to the factory managers, they claimed she "looked like that before," meaning she had the skin ailment before working in the factory. Of course, that was absurd. Managers could plainly see that Esperanza was not the only affected woman.

Esperanza's story is not only heartbreaking but has become the norm for many workers, both in this country and abroad, whose lives are destroyed in the name of profits, and whose productivity does not translate into rewards for their labor.

Maqulidoras and garment factories are alike in this way: they have created an economic system in which working conditions are being flushed straight down the toilet.

Women, many of them young, handle a large part of garment production. Women in these factories are often subjected to invasive examinations, pregnancy tests, sexual assault and physical coercion. Workers lack access to health care or sick leave and do not receive compensation for overtime. In this country, garment workers labor under the constant threat of deportation, whether they are immigrants or not. These are factories where people lack access to decent ventilation, where they are forced to work 12 or 14 hours a day, and where workers have little or no recourse to improve their workplaces.

These sorts of working conditions are something that we would all like to believe are straight from a Dickens novel or out of the bleak history of 19th century industrialization. Certainly, students have read about these conditions in history classes. Perhaps some even knew that International Women's Day memorializes the lives of 100 women that were lost in the New York Triangle Shirtwaist Company fire in 1911.

What our classes do not teach us, and what many of us have learned in the last couple of years, is that sweatshops are not just a part of our past. The Washington Post described the working conditions at one present-day New York sweatshop as follows.

"The workers typically toiled at their sewing machines for up to 60 hours a week in a room with the wires hanging from the ceiling, three small fans that served as the only source of ventilation. Wages were arbitrarily cut or delayed if the owner ran short of funds. Employees who missed a day would be illegally fined."

Things have not really changed.

Just last year, a sweatshop was discovered in Los Angeles that produced clothes for UCLA, among other schools. In fact, over the last couple of years numerous sweatshops that produce collegiate clothing have been found not only in California, but in Central America and Asia. Reporters uncovered a group of workers in Bangladesh who were producing caps for the UC system and who were being paid less than 30 cents an hour.

Recently, a factory in Los Angeles that produces clothes for the UC system was discovered to be in violation of several labor laws, including wages set at roughly three dollars an hour and forced overtime. These are just two of thousands of examples of the horrible abuses that sweatshop workers are forced to suffer all over the world.

The garment industry, in particular, is one of the most globalized and secretive industries in the world: factories are located all over the world, production is dominated by specialized piece-work, and factory locations and working conditions are kept (until recently) entirely secret. This kind of industry lends itself very easily to intense exploitation of workers.

Still, the garment industry is an $89 billion a year profit-making juggernaut. Michael Eisner, chief executive officer of Disney, pays his Haitian laborers 28 cents per hour while he earns over $97,000 an hour himself.

Even though the UC system has made some improvements in its licensing arrangements with garment manufacturers, these are token steps that do not actually remedy the problem. While the university has signed one of the strongest codes of conduct for its apparel licensees, it has refused to sign on to a monitoring plan that would independently verify that clothes with the Cal logo were not made in sweatshops. Without independent monitoring, UC's code of conduct is at best a toothless and empty promise.

That is why the United Students Against Sweatshops, which represents more than 200 campuses nationally, is demanding that university administrators sign on to the Worker's Rights Consortium, a coalition of non-governmental organizations, human rights groups and unions. The group would independently monitory sweatshop conditions. Unlike the Fair Labor Association, WRC does not have corporations sitting on its advisory board, but it does require full public disclosure of its findings. WRC can give workers a voice in changing their working conditions and in helping them improve their lives.

In the past month and a half, several universities have signed on to WRC because of strong student activism. Even the University of Wisconsin, whose football team just won the Rose Bowl, and whose school will probably make bags of money from the sale of its collegiate apparel, has signed on to the WRC in an attempt to end sweatshop labor. It is quite sad that the UC system still lags far behind the rest.

There are several reasons that students have become intensely involved in this campaign to end sweatshop slavery. We see how this "miracle economy" has really left most people behind to drown in its wake. Corporations have more say in determining our lives than we do. We have seen firsthand what sweatshops look like and how they destroy the lives of people, most of them our ages or younger. And we know this university is intimately involved in the exploitation of workers.

Enough is enough. These are people just like us, someone's children, parents, siblings. They deserve to be treated with decency, respect and dignity. The UC system should not be in the business of exploiting workers. Join the fight to end sweatshops on this campus and off, and encourage the administration to sign on to the Worker's Rights Consortium.

Ingrid Evjen-Elias is a UC Berkeley student. Snehal Shingavi, a UC Berkeley graduate student, and Chuck McNally, an undergraduate, collaborated with her on this piece. They are members of United Students Against Sweatshops. Respond to them at [email protected]


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