Update: Russell Athletic
Russell Athletic, and a trade association of which the company is a member, have recently asked universities to reconsider their view of Russell’s actions in the Jerzees de Honduras case, on the grounds that “new information” has come to light, including ostensible progress on Russell’s implementation of a “corrective action plan” the company announced in February. The Fair Labor Association has recently circulated a matrix indicating the steps Russell has taken in this regard.
A number of our affiliate universities have asked for the WRC’s view on these questions: whether Russell has genuinely remediated the severe labor rights violations the company committed in Honduras and whether there is any basis for a reconsideration of the company’s record.
The answer, unfortunately, is no.
As we have outlined in other communications over the last several months, the “corrective action plan” announced by Russell is not remotely adequate to address the harm the company has done in Honduras. Russell’s violations of associational rights are the most systematic and persistent we have witnessed in any university code of conduct case. These violations have done enormous damage not just to the nearly two thousand employees of the factory that Russell illegally closed, but also to workers throughout the Russell supply chain in Honduras. The company’s actions have sent an unmistakable message to all Russell employees: do not try to exercise your basic rights, because if you do, you will be fired. As a result, the associational rights of Russell workers in Honduras have been effectively revoked. A right has no meaning if you cannot exercise it.
The minimal “corrective actions” Russell has undertaken do not speak in any meaningful way either to the harm done to the Jerzees de Honduras workforce or to the chilling effect that Russell’s mistreatment of that workforce is having at other Russell factories. Indeed, the “corrective action plan” is significantly weaker than the one Russell agreed to in 2007 in order to remediate less severe violations that were exposed at the time (i.e., the illegal firing of 145 workers in retaliation for their decision to exercise their workplace rights). It flies in the face of basic principles of labor rights remediation – not to mention common sense – to prescribe less stringent penalties as a company’s violations are repeated and grow more severe. In 2007, Russell was required to provide jobs and back-pay to the 145 workers it illegally fired. After this, in spite of its promises to reform, the company renewed its campaign of illegal retaliation in 2008 – but on a far larger scale. Yet the company’s current “corrective action plan” does not obligate it to provide re-employment or back pay for a single worker.
As another example, the company’s “corrective action plan” calls for it to re-issue in its factories the same pledge to respect associational rights that it was required to issue in 2007. The statement meant something in 2007, since it was combined with concrete actions to re-employ illegally fired workers and since, at that point, workers might have held out some hope that the company was serious about changing its practices. Now, however, workers have heard the company’s statement that it was committed to respecting workers’ associational rights – and have then watched Russell do everything possible to demonstrate that it has no intention whatsoever of abiding by that commitment. At this point, re-issuance of this statement, a major provision of the Russell “corrective action plan,” has absolutely zero value. There is no worker in Russell’s Honduran operations who will take this statement seriously. Indeed, Russell’s entire “corrective action plan” is akin to putting a band-aid on a badly broken leg, and then telling the patient he’s as good as new and should get out there and hop on home. If we do not require full remediation from Russell, given the breadth, persistence and severity of the company’s violations of associational rights, then we cannot expect any worker in Honduras making university logo goods to have any faith that they can exercise their rights without retaliation. Indeed, the lesson they will have learned is that, if they exercise these rights, they will do so at the cost of their livelihood, and no one will be able to do anything about it.
Thus, while there are clearly some areas where Russell has not faithfully implemented its plan – as is clear from a careful reading of the FLA matrix – this is very much a secondary issue. The degree to which Russell has carried out its “corrective actions” is of very little relevance, because even if the company’s plan were implemented to the last letter, it would not meaningfully address the harm the company has done and would not bring Russell into compliance with university codes of conduct.
Meanwhile, Russell has continued to make statements that demonstrate that the company is not ready to deal honestly and forthrightly with the university community and maintains a posture of contempt toward the rights of association that are protected by university codes.
The company’s latest missive to universities, dated May 1, is a case in point (the WRC will offer detailed comments on this monumentally disingenuous document next week). In the letter, Russell disparages the universities that have taken action against the company. Russell claims that many of the universities that have terminated Russell’s license have done so “without even giving [Russell] the courtesy of an opportunity to present [its] side of the story.” The WRC is not aware of any university that has acted with “discourtesy” toward Russell. What we have observed is universities across the country – regardless of what action they have ultimately taken – considering this issue with great care and deliberation. Rather than acknowledging this, Russell suggests that universities have taken action against the company not because of the company’s behavior, but because these universities are too close-minded and ill-mannered to give Russell a fair hearing.
In this same letter, Russell also reiterates its claim that the level of unionization is low in Honduras because workers don’t want to exercise their associational rights – not because of the mass firings and numerous other acts of intimidation, coercion and violence against unionists and labor rights advocates that have been documented by the US government, the ILO, the WRC, the FLA and the entire human rights community. Russell, which is the largest private employer in the country, and which has admitted to carrying out illegal mass firings of trade unionists, then goes on to state that workers’ reluctance to exercise their associational rights is “certainly not because of Russell Athletic.” Russell’s unseemly crowing about the low level of unionization in Honduras – which the company knows is the fruit of decades of illegal repression – provides a very disturbing window into this company’s view of the world.
In summary, there is no new information that constitutes any basis for believing that Russell has changed its ways.
We greatly appreciate the time and thought that university administrators have devoted to this important case. And we continue to hope that Russell will hear the message that universities are sending and reconsider its course of action.
Please contact us if you have any questions about this communication.