The year behind us and the year ahead

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Dear University Colleagues,
 
First, I want to express my heartfelt appreciation for the robust support the WRC has continued to receive from the university community. Despite the challenges educational institutions have faced during the pandemic, universities and colleges across the US and Canada have maintained their WRC affiliation and continued to sustain our labor rights work. Indeed, we have even gained new affiliates during 2020. We know this stems from universities’ recognition that labor rights enforcement is vital to the integrity and success of their licensing programs.
 
The continuous support and participation of universities made it possible for the WRC to spearhead the labor rights community’s response to the pandemic in the apparel supply chain, to make big strides in our work against forced labor in the Uyghur Region, and to continue uncovering and remedying violations of university labor standards at factories across the globe. And this continued support will enable us to protect worker rights and university standards in 2021, at a time when the risk of abuses in the university supply chain is dangerously high.

In this message, I will highlight some of last year’s work and provide a brief overview of the WRC’s priorities for 2021.

Here are some of the successes the WRC achieved during 2020:

  • Responding to the pandemic: When numerous brands refused to pay suppliers for apparel orders, threatening the wages of millions of garment workers, including many sewing collegiate apparel, the WRC documented the problem and spearheaded a massive effort to persuade brands to reverse course, using our brand tracker as a primary tool. Dozens of brands agreed to pay their bills to suppliers, reinstating many billions in payments and preserving more than a billion dollars in workers’ wages. The impact of the crisis on workers has still been very severe, but it would have been much worse without this effort.
  • Protecting worker health: The WRC partnered with leading industrial hygienists to create detailed guidance for garment factories on how to operate safely and minimize virus transmission. These guidelines led to major improvements at a number of collegiate factories, including installation of handwashing stations, greater social distancing, and safer transportation. 
  • Monitoring impacts: This fall, our team interviewed 400 garment workers across nine countries and documented a rising wave of hunger among workers and their families. We have helped bring stronger international media attention to this situation and strengthened global efforts to mobilize financial aid for garment worker families. 
  • Protecting workers from retaliation: Workers speaking up about health risks and wage theft during the pandemic have faced harsh retaliation from many employers—some of whom enlisted the police to intimidate and imprison workers. The WRC documented and sought remedies in numerous cases. For example, at a collegiate factory in El Salvador, the WRC secured reinstatement for four worker-leaders who had been unlawfully fired. In Cambodia, the WRC helped secure the release of a Cambodian union leader who had been jailed for posting on Facebook about labor rights concerns. 
  • Securing back pay: The WRC has continued our work to ensure that workers receive the compensation they legally earn, including those who lose their jobs. For example, at a factory in Indonesia, we secured $3 million in unpaid severance for 1,600 workers who sewed collegiate apparel. 
  • Combating forced labor: Along with the pandemic, we have focused intensively on forced labor in the Uyghur Region. The WRC advised all university licensees last summer that they must cease sourcing inputs for collegiate goods from the region, and we spearheaded the creation of a huge global coalition asking all apparel brands and retailers to do the same. The WRC’s research has informed US government enforcement of laws barring the import of goods made with forced labor and has helped bring worldwide attention to the forced labor in cotton and yarn production and the need for action. 

Going forward, during 2021, we will focus on the following priorities:

  • Preventing and addressing wage theft: We recently initiated communications with brands concerning several dozen cases we are investigating of possible unpaid severance, a number of these at collegiate factories, and we will be working assiduously in the months ahead to confirm findings and secure back pay, wherever it is owed. We anticipate more such cases as the pandemic unfolds.
  • Combating forced labor in the Uyghur Region: The end of this month is the deadline we identified for licensees to disclose all sources of fabric and yarn, to ensure licensees are not sourcing from the Uyghur Region. We will be working with licensing agents to review the data and follow up appropriately with licensees. Our broader coalitional work to combat forced labor also continues; last week, the giant UK-based retailer Marks & Spencer (with nearly $15 billion in annual revenue) became the first major industry player to publicly commit to our coalition’s Call to Action, thereby pledging to cease all sourcing from the region. And, as we’ve reported to you, US Customs and Border Protection has just instituted as region-wide ban on cotton products.
  • Protecting workers across the university supply chain: Financial pressure on factory owners is elevating the risk of human rights abuses across the collegiate supply chain, at a time when licensees’ preoccupation with their own financial challenges is distracting many from labor rights monitoring. To put it bluntly, the WRC’s work has never been more necessary to protect worker rights and universities’ labor standards. We are redoubling our efforts to identify and remedy labor rights violations at factories making university logo goods and anticipate a great volume of work ahead.
  • Combating gender-based violence in the workplace: The WRC will continue our work, with partners in the US and Lesotho, to implement the groundbreaking agreements on sexual harassment we helped negotiate in late 2019 with leading apparel brands. We believe this pioneering program will establish a new standard in the industry, with major implications for protecting workers who make university logo goods from sexual harassment and violence. 

As always, please let me know if you have any questions.

Sincerely,

Scott