The population of Ann Arbor Michigan swelled this past weekend with football fans. It was the annual Michigan vs. Michigan State football game and I was in town to witness some of the fanfare. The sidewalks, parking lots, porches, lawns and frat house balconies were jam-packed with people. Everybody, I mean EVERYBODY was wearing a t-shirt to show their allegiance to either the Wolverines (Michigan) or the Spartans (Michigan State). A few contrarians and oddballs, like me, wore shirts promoting other schools, all in the spirit of fun and camaraderie.
As I took in the football Saturday experience, it wasn’t lost on me that the collegiate apparel industry is big business. (One estimate suggested annual contracts between colleges and apparel companies totaled $3 – $4 billion.) In just this one city, with a football stadium that holds at least 110,000 people and the surrounding tailgating and party venues, that’s a lot of collegiate apparel. Multiple that by the dozens and dozens of college football games played each weekend, and millions of loyal students and alumni showing their a school spirit with t-shirts and sweatshirt hoodies. You’d only have to check a few of the shirt tags to learn that most of this apparel is made in Honduras, El Salvador and Thailand by US firms (Russell, Champion, JanSport, etc.)
United Students Against Sweatshops has led the fight on college campuses to demand their institutions’ support of apparel contracts that ensure fair wages and safe conditions for the factory workers manufacturing these goods. I learned in an email from Garrett Brown, the volunteer coordinator of the Maquiladora Health and Safety Support Network, about another project to ensure labor rights for garment workers who make college-promo t-shirts. Brown writes this month about the Alta Gracia Project in the Dominican Republic (DR), a factory producing college-logo t-shirts, sweatshirts and the like for 200 US institutions of higher education. Workers are paid more than twice the prevailing wage for garment workers, have a member-controlled trade union, and new production equipment installed with safety in mind. The vision for Alta Garcia came from the Workers Rights Consortium(WRC), an NGO seeking to combat sweatshop labor and protect the rights of workers who make goods, many of which are eventually sold here in the U.S. WRC teamed up with the South Caroline-based Knights Apparel to renovate a shuttered garment factory in the DR and provide living wage, safe jobs to dozens of workers. For those who buy apparel to show school spirit, you may want to know that Alta Gracia is the only clothing brand in the developing world yet to achieve WRC’s labor standards.
Weekly pay at the plant is 4,189 pesos ($115), more than three times the country’s minimum wage of 1,246 pesos ($34) and almost triple the average wage of Dominican garment workers of 1,490 pesos ($41). That’s a wage differential of $2.61 an hour at Alta Gracia compared to 93 cents an hour for average garment workers.
Alta Gracia produces collegiate apparel for small schools like Quinnipiac University (CT) and Augustana College (SD) to the behemoths like Ohio State and UCLA. As one workers said, however, its not about this one factory in the DR:
“I hope that our prayers are answered and that there is not just one Alta Gracia factory but that there are hundreds of factories like Alta Gracia in the future so that my country can have a brighter future.”
The t-shirt I’m wearing today bears a college logo. It was made in a factory in Honduras under a contract to Champion. I checked out the company’s website to read its corporate responsibility policy or any other info on where and how its collegiate wear is manufactured. I struggled to find anything of the sort, until I saw a text box near the bottom of Champion’s homepage announcing its “No-sweat” guarantee. At last, something to ease my mind that the shirt on my back was not made with sweatshop labor. I click on the link to read:
“We back our unbeatable products with unbeatable service. Return any item, any time, for any reason, for a refund or replacement –your choice. With us, you’re always the champion.”
Oh my, we’re on different wave lengths. They’re worried about the potential sweat on my brow if I don’t like their t-shirt, not a peep about policies on sweat-shop free working conditions. This company might want me to believe I’m a champion, but not finding any info about their labor rights policies makes me fear the worst about the shirt I’m wearing. I might feel like a champion had I been a more educated consumer and known about the Alta Gracia label before buying my latest college promo t-shirt.