Looking Back, Looking Forward
December 22, 2016
It has been an eventful, challenging, and productive year for our efforts to advance university labor standards and protect the rights of workers who make collegiate goods.
This work is never smooth or easy. Global apparel supply chains continue to be defined by intense price and production pressures, giving factories powerful incentives to reduce costs by any available means. With most goods being manufactured in countries where labor laws are not effectively enforced by local governments, the available means often include violating workers’ rights. And, as we have just seen in the case of the Hansae Vietnam factory, the monitoring conducted by apparel brands of their suppliers’ labor practices can leave serious abuses unidentified and uncorrected. This is the difficult context in which university code enforcement efforts must be carried out.
In the face of these challenges, university labor codes continue to be one of the most effective instruments in existence for protecting and advancing worker rights. In 2016, the WRC’s investigations and advocacy have led to more than a million dollars in back pay for workers who had been denied legally mandated compensation; the reinstatement of workers at numerous factories fired in retaliation for exercising their right to advocate for better working conditions; the uncovering and correction of serious deficiencies in factory health and safety practices; and numerous other improvements and remedies benefiting tens of thousands of workers across the collegiate supply chain.
In Bangladesh, where the WRC continues to help oversee implementation of the ground-breaking Accord on Fire and Building Safety, 2016 saw the completion of more than 40,000 safety upgrades in more than 1,500 factories covered by the agreement – from the strengthening of deficient structural columns to the installation of fire doors and automatic sprinkler systems. In total, more than 70,000 upgrades have been completed over the life of the agreement. This represents enormous progress that has greatly increased the level of safety for more than 2.5 million garment workers, including tens of thousands making university logo goods, making the Accord by far the most effective safety initiative since the globalization of apparel supply chains more than thirty years ago. For all that progress, there is still a great deal to do to make all covered factories fully safe – and delays in the completion of renovations remain the Accord’s greatest challenge.
Amidst all of the work to uncover and address violations of university labor codes, one factory continues to stand out as a powerful symbol of labor rights compliance and progress: Alta Gracia. The factory is now in its sixth year of operations and it continues to pay workers a living wage that is three times the legal minimum, to maintain constructive relations with a democratic labor union, and to comply scrupulously with all university labor standards.
It takes only a few minutes inside the facility – where the peaceful and collaborative working environment stands in sharp contrast to the intense work pressures and often harsh management tactics that are common throughout the industry – to recognize what an incredible step forward the factory represents. And it is hard to overstate what Alta Gracia means to its workers and their family members. At the wages that prevail in the garment industry around the world, most workers don’t make nearly enough money to provide the basic necessities for their families. They struggle to stay afloat: eating poor quality food, sometimes even skipping meals; living in inadequate shelter; and often unable to pay schools fees or forced by financial necessity to put their children to work. At Alta Gracia, every worker is paid enough to provide good nutrition for their families, to secure decent housing, with running water, and to pay for health care. Alta Gracia workers’ kids stay in school – some of them now go to college. The three dollars an hour paid at Alta Gracia enables workers and their families to escape poverty and live in dignity, with hope for the future.
The extraordinary advances achieved at Alta Gracia would not have been possible without the commitment universities and colleges have made to carry the Alta Gracia product in their campus stores. With Alta Gracia now facing new challenges as a stand-alone company, that support will be even more important going forward.
As the year draws to a close, I’ve found myself reflecting not just on the accomplishments and struggles of 2016, but on the long-term contribution that students and universities have made to global labor rights efforts. The leadership universities have provided – by making labor standards binding and enforceable in licensing agreements, by requiring public disclosure of factories, and by supporting independent monitoring – has had ripple effects throughout the industry and the ripples continue to expand.
To take one key example, a significant number of the world’s most important apparel brands and retailers now voluntarily disclose their factories, including non-collegiate companies like H&M and Gap. This is a huge advance for transparency and accountability, and we anticipate that more companies will make disclosure commitments in the coming year. There is no question about the origins of this trend. It was the decision of universities to require public disclosure of university factories, beginning in 1999 (and to stand by that decision, despite initial resistance from many licensees), that started this train in motion.
After licensees accepted the requirement to disclose their collegiate factories, some decided they might as well disclose all of their suppliers. Others followed. Now, supplier disclosure is becoming the norm for brands that want to be seen as responsible. Just this week, Under Armour, with whom the WRC has been in communication on this issue, informed us that it will begin publicly disclosing all of its top tier suppliers for non-collegiate goods in the first part of next year, a significant step towards broader supply chain transparency for this important university partner.
Another example is the Bangladesh Accord, which the WRC played a central role in creating and which, as a binding and enforceable labor rights program, is modeled in part on the binding labor standards pioneered by universities in their licensing agreements. Then there is the extraordinary progress on associational rights in Honduras, arising from the breakthrough at Russell Athletic/Fruit of the Loom – progress which is now expanding to El Salvador where, shortly before his untimely death, Rick Medlin, the late CEO of Fruit of the Loom, signed a new agreement to expand the space for the exercise of associational rights at the company’ factories. On the issue of unpaid severance, a chronic problem at garment factories, we have seen great and growing progress in the university sphere in getting workers the compensation they’ve earned and we are now seeing non-collegiate brands stepping up to make workers whole in these cases.
In this very tough industry, despite all of the obstacles, the university community’s labor rights efforts continue to bear fruit, improving the lives of garment workers and their families from Dhaka to San Salvador to Villa Altagracia.
We wish you a happy and peaceful holiday season and we look forward to working with you in 2017.
Worker Rights Consortium