Urgent Concerns re: Russell Athletic Factory in Honduras

To:Primary Contacts, WRC Affiliate Colleges and Universities
From:Scott Nova
Date:September 20, 2007
Re:Urgent Concerns re: Russell Athletic Factory in Honduras

I write to you today regarding an urgent situation involving violations of university codes of conduct at a supplier facility owned and operated by Russell Athletic in Honduras.

The WRC has conducted a preliminary investigation at the facility, known as Jerzees Choloma, in response to a worker complaint. While we have not yet issued findings, we have thus far gathered overwhelming evidence that violations of university codes of conduct have occurred at the facility. These violations include the following: managers and supervisors routinely yell at workers and address workers with demeaning epithets; the factory requires workers to perform illegal mandatory overtime; factory restrooms fail to meet basic hygiene standards; and, the factory has discriminated against at least one worker on the basis of her pregnancy. Workers at the factory have protested these conditions and in March of this year initiated efforts to organize a union. Factory management responded to these efforts by firing union leaders and supporters en masse and threatening to close the factory if workers persisted in their efforts to form a union.

I report to you today because there are urgent developments in the case which require immediate intervention by Russell Athletic. On Friday, September 14, in the midst of the WRC’s investigation, management terminated a group of roughly twenty-three workers, all of them active supporters of the union. Among this group were numerous workers who had very recently provided testimony to the WRC concerning the factory’s labor practices. According to worker testimony, at the time of the dismissal, a factory manager told workers that the factory would never accept a union and that it was futile for workers to bring in an organization from the US. We are concerned that the recent firings were carried out not only in retaliation for workers’ unionization efforts and protests concerning working conditions, but also in retaliation for workers’ decision to seek protection under university codes of conduct by filing a complaint with the WRC.

Also deeply disturbing, we received information today, as yet unconfirmed, that Russell is now planning to shut down the facility. If this is in fact Russell’s intention, it would raise grave concerns. Shutting down a factory in response to a union organizing effort or in response to a decision by workers to exercise their right to file a code of conduct complaint is among the worst possible violations of university codes of conduct. As noted above, factory management has, on multiple occasions during the past six months, threatened workers by stating that management would sooner close the plant than accept a union. We also know that plant management has been aware for more than two weeks – and possibly substantially longer – that workers had filed a labor rights complaint.

Both before and after learning of the firing of employees who had provided testimony to the WRC, we have made numerous efforts to contact representatives of Russell, at both the plant and corporate levels. In repeated communications this week, we have stressed that the situation is urgent and that an immediate response from Russell is needed. We have received no response of any kind from the company. Given the lack of response from Russell, and the gravity of the situation on the ground in Honduras, we deemed it prudent to notify our affiliate universities at this juncture.

It should be noted that in addition to producing clothing for Russell, the plant also produces apparel for university licensee T-Shirt International, according to disclosure data. However, since Russell owns the Jerzees Choloma plant and is therefore the decision maker regarding what occurs at the plant, our efforts to date have focused on Russell. The WRC will also communicate with T-Shirt International going forward.

We would encourage universities that have a strong relationship with Russell to contact the company to express concern about the situation and to make clear to Russell that the company is obligated to respond when evidence of labor rights violations is brought forward by universities’ designated monitoring agents.

Please feel free to contact me if you have any questions regarding this information.

Scott Nova
Worker Rights Consortium
5 Thomas Circle NW
Washington DC 20005
ph 202 387 4884
fax 202 387 3292
[email protected]