Panel promotes fair labor practices across countries

By Maxwell Barna, The Daily Targum, November 9, 2010

A panel of business owners met  November 8,  in the Labor Education Center on Cook campus to discuss concepts surrounding fair labor sourcing outside of the United States.

Panelists at the talk, which was sponsored by the School of Management and Labor Relations, included Knights Apparel CEO Joe Bozich, Executive Director of the Worker Rights Consortium Scott Nova and School House clothing founder Rachel Weeks.

The presentation began with an explanation of how bigger clothing companies like Nike and Adidas have promised to help improve the conditions of their factory workers but have yet to deliver.

"Unfortunately, the brands have not been too good at improving wages and working conditions," Nova said. "These are the two issues where we see the least amount of progress, yet they are the most important to a worker's livelihood."

The panelists said the bigger brands have not delivered on many of their promises, but there has been some amount of progress.

Tipping their hats to things like nationwide student activism and university codes of conduct — which are used by universities to help regulate the clothing sold in their stores — they explained how different brands have agreed to unprecedented negotiations between themselves and their workers.

"It is because of the universities and student activists efforts to hold big brands accountable to these labor standards that they've been able to facilitate change," Nova said.

Marybeth Schmutz, assistant director of the Trademark Licensing Office and board member of the WRC, said among more than 100 colleges and universities in the United States and Canada, the University was the third school to tell Russell Clothing, a branch of Fruit of the Loom, it would not be renewing its contract with the company because of its disregard for their workers' rights to unionize.

Bozich said his involvement with Alta Gracia clothing line, a subsidiary of Knights Apparel, has been rewarding.

"Alta Gracia apparel means freedom from poverty through job creation, living wages and education," he said.

Bozich also explained that a large portion of the company's marketing strategy is geared toward allowing consumers to see how working for Alta Gracia has directly affected the lives of every person responsible for the direct production of the clothing. On every tag there is a personal story from different employees.

Weeks, sharing similar sentiments, centered her discussion around how, despite the company's small size and the poor state of the economy, the rate at which their clothing sells and the contribution of every customer keeps her company moving.

"I think one of the greatest challenges is reaching students directly and articulating just how important every T-shirt is to the success of these initiatives," she said. "I just can't drive home how much every T-shirt we sell inspires us."

Aside from promoting worker well-being and the organization of foreign and domestic labor unions, the panelists also placed emphasis on one concept in particular: employing people under what is called a "living wage."

In a market dominated by companies whose sole concern is getting their products manufactured as inexpensively as possible, a living wage — the amount of money a worker must be paid in order to cover all of life's necessities — works wonders for workers everywhere, Bozich said.

It is this ideal, among others, that separates companies like School House and Alta Gracia from bigger brands, he said.

John Cusick, the general manager of the Rutgers University bookstores, supports the companies' initiatives.

"It's an honor to sell their products in our store," he said. "Being in retail, to have a product like this that follows all the guidelines with fair labor makes it more enjoyable to sell the product. We were really excited for it."

Zachary Lerner, president of the Rutgers United Students Against Sweatshops, agreed with the worker-friendly business strategies outlined by Weeks, Nova and Bozich.

"You're taking companies who are showing that you can make a profit while actually giving people living wages and the rights to organize, which is unheard of by other companies who pay [their workers] basically nothing," said Lerner, a School of Arts and Sciences senior. "If companies like this are able to succeed, it could set a precedent throughout the entire industry that this business model works."

In response to that, Nova also noted these initiatives depend on retailer and consumer support in order to function.

"If we can someday, through a variety of means and tactics, convince the bigger brands to make the same commitment to legitimately respect the rights of workers to create a union, then we will see a world of difference," he said.

Osinachi Onukogu, a School of Arts and Sciences junior, was satisfied with the discussion, but was concerned with the lack of emphasis on worker knowledge and talk of benefits.

She added that she was also concerned about what her fellow students should but do not know about both foreign and domestic working conditions.

"I want students to be aware of how these companies are destroying humans and their families," she said. "They need to know."

Bozich was optimistic about the motives of his and other cause-related companies, citing the multi-billion dollar fair trade industry as his primary example.

"I think there could be a huge movement in cause-related products. I think it could turn into, not just the right thing to do, but a great business opportunity," he said. "The bigger it gets, the more people we'll employ, and that's where I think it could go."