Studying Fair Labor, with a Husky Twist

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Nancy Joseph 07/07/2008 July 2008 Perspectives

Next time you put on a Husky t-shirt, take a moment to think about the workers who made the garment. Students in Responsible Apparel Purchasing, a course offered by the Jackson School of International Studies, spent an entire quarter thinking about them. The students even traveled to Guatemala to meet some of them.

The course was part of the Jackson School’s Task Force Program, which provides a capstone experience for JSIS majors. Each task force—seven were offered this year— tackles a current policy issue. Students research the issue thoroughly, work together to develop a policy position, write a detailed report supporting their recommendations, and present their findings to an outside evaluator.

Angelina Godoy led the Responsible Apparel Purchasing task force, which explored the complex labor issues surrounding apparel production and resulted in policy recommendations for the UW regarding licensed apparel. The evaluator for the task force was UW President Mark Emmert.

Angelina Godoy (center, seated) with students in the Responsible Apparel Purchasing task force.

“I saw an opportunity for students to do real-world policy research about something that hits close to home,” says Godoy, associate professor of international studies and law, societies, and justice.

The sixteen students in Godoy’s task force are not the first to study this issue. The UW and other universities have been grappling for some time with how to ensure that apparel bearing their trademark is produced using fair labor practices. A committee of UW faculty, staff and students—the Licensing Advisory Committee (LAC)—meets regularly to address this issue.

The problem is complex due to the number of parties involved in creating and marketing a garment, explains Godoy. There’s the UW, which provides the licensing for use of UW logos on a garment. The UW then selects a company—whose brand name you see on the clothing—to produce the item. That company, the licensee, markets the clothing but usually contracts with foreign factories to actually make the garment.

“With globalization of apparel production, it has become economically efficient for clothes to be produced in countries where there isn’t effective labor regulation,” says Godoy. “All these layers make it hard to know about working conditions or to know who is accountable for labor violations and who will pay to make it right. This is not a problem unique to the collegiate market.”

Learning the Basics

Students began their research by reviewing current policy proposals being considered by the collegiate community regarding apparel purchasing.

“The collegiate community is only about two percent of the apparel market, but it is an important two percent,” says Godoy. “It is a community that cares about this, and there is the intervening level of a university choosing whether to give a company the license to sell its goods. So there is an opportunity for some control.”

The students’ research included interviews with representatives of activist and labor groups as well as a discussion with Kathy Hoggan, director of the UW Trademarks and Licensing Office. Hoggan also paved the way for interviews with apparel companies that have UW contracts. One apparel licensee sent a representative to campus and had a second staffer join the class in Guatemala to ensure access to its factories. Other licensees were less forthcoming, but most granted at least a phone interview.

“People saw that it was in the name of research and responded to that,” says Martina Kartman, a task force participant. “And I think as a class we did a good job of not being combative.” Adds classmate Tina Gall, “It was also to our advantage that we were a group of undergraduates who perhaps weren’t taken too seriously. I think it’s better to come off as naive. You tend to get more information that way.”

A First-Hand Look

After weeks of research and interviews in the U.S., the class headed for Guatemala to talk with managers and workers in factories producing UW apparel. The group visited three factories and spoke with workers off-site as well, with Godoy translating for the non-Spanish speaking students.

“We knew that the factories would be cleaned up for our visit,” says Godoy, “but it was still helpful for students to see them.” 

Many workers were reticent to talk at work, knowing that managers might overhear them. But with the help of local labor organizations, students were able to meet with workers in places where they felt safer. 

One worker invited the group to her home. For Gall, that visit was a highlight of the trip. “It was the first time you could make the connection between the work and the conditions the workers live in,” she says. “The walls and roof were corrugated roof material. Walls were crumbling. This is where the worker could afford to live.”

JSIS student Katie Furia stands outside a worker's house in a squatter settlement in Guatemala. 

Some apparel workers spoke of being forced to work unpaid overtime from Saturday night into Sunday morning without a break. Others said they had been denied medical attention. And not surprisingly, those who attempted to unionize their factories were fired.

“The answers we got in interviews with U.S. companies were completely 
different than what we got from workers,” says Gall. “We saw two sides of the story—what people in the U.S. think the problems are and what the people in Guatemala think the problems are. We had to consider each person’s motives and perspectives.”

The workers’ willingness to talk, despite the potential risk, was inspiring to the students. “It’s easy to see the workers as victims who are helpless,” says Kartman. “This did the opposite for me. I saw that they were doing what they could to make things better.”

Throughout the week in Guatemala, Godoy found the students’ stamina—both physical and emotional—impressive. “Those were very intense days,” she recalls. “We were on the bus by 7 a.m. for a day of interviews back to back. We’d return at 7 p.m., and students would spend hours discussing, in a very impassioned way, what they’d heard that day. For a professor, that is your dream scenario—that students are so engaged that they are debating late into the night.”

Preparing Recommendations

When the class returned from Guatemala, it was time for the students to decide on policy recommendations and prepare their report—while catching up on assignments for other classes missed during their week in Guatemala.

Agreeing on policy recommendations was surprisingly difficult. “We all had the same information, and we all felt very passionate about this issue, but we had different perspectives,” says Kartman. “It took multiple dialogs to come up with something we could share ownership of, that we all felt represented our views.”

The students realized that they would not be able to solve this complex problem in one quarter, but they had a valuable perspective to offer, having spoken with people at all levels of the apparel supply chain. Their recommendations included addressing specific labor violations they had found; increasing funding for the UW Office of Trademarks and Licensing to ensure that this issue gets adequate attention; and involving more UW students through internships with the Licensing Advisory Committee and the Trademark and Licensing Office. 

Mark Emmert was impressed with both the written report and presentation. “The students did a terrific job,” he says. “High marks, all around.” (See "The President as Evaluator" for more comments.) Nearly all of the task force students are continuing their research through independent study with Godoy.

Mark Emmert listens to task force student Carrie Moore during the Responsible Apparel Purchasing task force presentation.

Hoggan, who has been knee-deep in this issue for two years, was pleased to see that the students did not jump to the “good-bad, them-us polarized approach” to fair labor issues. “They clearly understood that there are many variables involved with product manufacturing and the supply chain,” she says.

Hoggan adds that most UW apparel is no longer produced in Guatemala, but the information gained can be applied elsewhere.

“The labor issues found in Guatemala are very real and the same problems exist 
in manufacturing plants in many countries,” says Hoggan. “The energy and critical thinking of UW students like those in Professor Godoy’s task force are very 
important in uncovering solutions for transforming the industry.”

Related Articles: 
Task Force Program Goes Silver 

 

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