Volume 93, Issue 49

Thursday, November 25, 1999


Students demanding disclosure

Buy Nothing Day offers some clarity

Students demanding disclosure

Courtesy of the University of Toronto

By Clare Elias
Gazette Staff

Last Thursday, students at the University of Toronto brought attention, once again, to their administration in the form of a rally. The event's purpose was to shed light on the ever present issue of sweatshops and the university's possible involvement.

Prompted by growing activism in such American universities as Duke and Michigan, the Students Against Sweatshops organization at U of T prepared a Code of Conduct in June of this year. This policy, given to John Dellandria, U of T's VP-administration, addressed the need of the university to provide information on the manufacturers of university apparel.

The document demands full disclosure of the companies' manufacturing locations and demands that the company offers a decent living wage for the workers as well as a work day which is eight hours long.

"[The SAS has] delivered the message and we have urged the university to pass the code by the end of December," said Ian Thomson, member of SAS. He added the turnout for the rally was very positive and the organization has received a lot of community support.

"More and more students are making the link between good and bad working conditions when asked to think about where their clothes come from. As working people themselves, they realize that when the standards around the world drop, then the standards drop around here as well."

However, Thomson added the urgency to get the code passed, is fueled by the group's uncertainty of the location of the university's clothing manufacturers. "Right now we can't tell if U of T clothing is made in good working conditions or [in] unthinkable conditions."

The poor conditions are when workers are treated with disrespect, harassment, physical abuse and labourers are forced to work late hours filling an unreasonable quantity, he said. The U of T SAS association works closely with the Maquila Solidarity Network in seeking information on working conditions.

Maquila functions as a checks and balances system and works in large part with the Maquila Dorra Factories in Latin America to improve working conditions, said Bob Jaeffcott, member of the network. "There have been many reports of forced pregnancy testing and workers being dismissed because of pregnancy," he said.

Jon Dellandrea, vice-president and chief development officer at U of T does not think the university is a hot bed of student activism. However, he said their interest in social issues is laudable. He added administration has been reviewing the process of adopting a Code of Conduct for the past six months.

"We're trying to figure out how best to accomplish things and protect the workers," Dellandrea said, adding there is a danger of imposing North American labour standards on other countries. "We may end up hurting the people we're trying to help."

As a result of student activism, companies such as Nike, have disclosed many of their locations which manufacture university clothing. "This was something that was unimaginable three years ago," Thomson added.

Simon Pestridge, labour practices manager for Nike in Portland, Oregon, said Nike was the first company to disclose their locations which deal with universities. Of the 560 Nike factories around the world, 41 factories producing licensed apparel have been disclosed.

"In the U.S., the student activists pressured their university to adopt codes of conduct and this has certainly been a good thing," Pestridge said, adding Nike has not changed its Code of Conduct.

In terms of wages, Pestridge said any alteration will absolutely affect the economic market of that country. "In Vietnam and Indonesia, factory jobs are entry level jobs and they must be in comparison with wages of teachers, for instance. Any changes would be fundamentally wrong."

John McMeekin, general manager of the bookstore division for Russell athletics, applauded the student activism in eradicating sweatshops. "The concern has spread across the U.S. and into Canada. It is a minority of people, but they are very vocal. This is a pretty good cause."

Russell Athletics had a Code of Conduct long before this became a hot issue, McMeekin said. The disclosure aspect is the only change made to their policy. "Disclosure is not an issue today. Many companies before were not eager to disclose and that was for one good reason – competition. But [disclosure] is very important to schools and companies have put the competitive bit aside," McMeekin said.

The issue of sweatshops has reached everyone's attention in the past year, however McMeekin said the concern goes beyond university apparel. "You'll soon have to be concerned about where you bought your place mats."

Helen Luu, member of SAS at Western, said until the University Students' Council and administration adopt a Code of Conduct, SAS will assume the worst. "Simply because a label is Canadian doesn't guarantee it was not made in a sweatshop," she said.

Luu, who was partially inspired by her mother's work in Toronto sweatshops, said SAS will not rest until a policy, which is now in its preliminary stage, is implemented by the university.

While student activism was at its peak in the '60s and '70s, the response at Western has been positive, Luu said.

SAS has approached the USC and plans to implement a Code of Conduct are still in the research phase, said Perry Monaco, VP-campus issues. "Student apathy at UWO is a problem, I think," Monaco said. "A lot of students are more concerned with a debt load, rising tuition and rightfully so, than sweatshops. This is also a cause for concern. But we have to prioritize and see we have the resources and the time to do this."

Donn Ekdahl, director of Western's BookStore said he has already spoken with SAS and is looking to open the dialogue between the two organizations. Ekdahl added the BookStore is in a position of sympathy in terms of SAS' aims and that they source all clothing with Canadian manufacturing.

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Copyright The Gazette 1999