Every year, Brown spends thousands of dollars on speaking fees for lecturers on topics from human sexuality (Dr. Ruth) to spoken word poetry (Amir Sulaiman). On Tuesday, March 11, the "speaking fee" for the Student Labor Alliance-sponsored Free Trade and Workers' Rights Awareness Series was collected in a passing hat.
The money went to pay the way of Dominican trade union activists Manuel Pujols and Julio Angel Castillo, who delivered a talk in Kassar House on the struggle to unionize and gain respect for workers' rights in the textile factories of the Dominican Free Trade Zone. Pujols and Castillo are the secretary general and secretary of grievances, respectively, of the Sindicato de Trabajadores de TOS (Textile Offshore Site). Brown was the their first stop on a speaking tour across the US to gather international support to pressure Hanes Brand, the apparel company that owns their factory, into respecting workers' rights.
The connection between Dominican textile workers and Brown may not be immediately clear, but asking for the support of American students is not such an odd strategy for those involved in the international apparel industry. Since the 1998 inception of US and Canadian group United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS), which helped to arrange Pujols' and Castillo's tour, North American students have joined with labor activists in the US and abroad to bring sweat-free apparel to their campuses and to push universities to stand at the vanguard of advocating a more just apparel industry.
The freedom of a $1.11 hourly wage
In the Dominican Republic, where almost all organized workplaces are outside of the textile industry, Pujols' and Castillo's fight for collective bargaining rights has been difficult. Under the Domican Repupblic-Central America Free Trade Agreement, International Labor Organization (ILO) agreements and Dominican law, workers have the right to freedom of association and to collectively bargain. In the lecture, Castillo referenced these guarantees: "There are rules and laws in the Free Trade Zone and agreements under the ILO that say we have rights that must be protected. But the company is not respecting these rights or the workers."
Pujols said he had worked for 20 years in the Dominican Free Trade Zone, and for over two years at the Hanes TOS factory.
He said that since he started work at the factory, the workers have seen both an increase in required working days and a reduction in wages. Employees work 12-hour days, often performing dangerous work. Pujols showed a video of workers bending to move a giant roll of cotton to illustrate why many suffer from back problems. He spoke about coworkers who complain of hearing damage, caused by the noisy environment, and respiratory problems, resulting from exposure to chemicals.
Realizing that Hanes was not fulfilling its contractual obligations, Pujols and Castillo decided to form a union as "the only way to defend themselves" and their coworkers. But deciding to unionize is one thing, and achieving that in an environment openly hostile to union activity another. In order to get a legally recognized bargaining unit, they needed the support of 50 percent plus one of the members of the workforce. In addition, they faced enormous pressure from the company to shut up. Pujols and Castillo said that of the 13 original union organizers, many were bought off in the company's attempt to crush the union. They were offered bribes and individual pay raises in return for giving up the struggle. Said Pujols, "This killed the union, so we [the second wave of activists] had to reform the union beginning from zero." Because the first round of organizers had been bought off and the company continued to threaten and intimidate workers, many were wary of union activity.
Those who remained involved in organizing the union have encountered a lot of prejudice. Castillo spoke of union organizers being shunned in the workplace cafeteria because workers were afraid to be associated with them. Both Pujols and Castillo were fired by the factory and had to take their cases before the Labor Board and Dominican court for wrongful discharge. They were both reinstated, but Castillo claimed he was offered a bribe of $10,000 to cease his activities. He said the company was "sure they could buy us out and kill off the union," adding that the discrimination he has faced "has been incredible." Pujols decried the inaction of the Labor Board, saying, "A union leader in Santo Domingo is treated like a criminal just for defending [his] rights--those rights promised under law and the constitution."
Beyond the struggle to exercise the right to freedom of association, Pujols and Castillo emphasized they are also focusing on reclaiming unpaid wages. They say the company owes over $1.4 million in back pay to those who work 12-hour days but have been paid for only eight hours. They are also gathering signatures to legally authorize a strike. They have over 50 percent of the workers on board, but management still refuses to recognize them as a bargaining unit. In an interview with the Independent, Castillo reiterated, "Organizing is a right. It is not illegal. We are fighting discrimination because we have rights."
Understanding the acronyms
The Workers' Rights Awareness Series came on the heels of a USAS and SLA victory at Brown: the President's Cabinet's authorization of the Designated Suppliers Program (DSP). The DSP was designed by universities and student activists to create mechanisms to enforce the labor standards universities have in place. It provides incentive for apparel licencees and their factories to support workers' rights through withholding or granting University licensing contracts. Though in 1999 Brown became the first school to sign on to another USAS program, the Workers' Rights Consortium, the University has lagged behind in choosing to affiliate with the DSP.
Universities have both the obligation and the power to change the apparel industry's treatment of workers. Schools like Brown can help organizers like Pujols and Castillo by using their consumer leverage. Through WRC-coordinated monitoring, factories become designated by adhering to fair labor standards like paying a living wage, providing safe working conditions and allowing freedom of association for workers. They then gain access to university licensing contracts.
"There's really so little space for improvements and to organize [in the apparel industry]," Sarah Adler-Milstein, who provided the translation at Pujols' and Castillo's talk and has been active in the DSP fight at Brown, told the Independent. "Any squeeze room there is to improve wages often gets undermined. The basis [of the DSP] is to use university orders to create any space for... positive worker organizing and actual improvements."
Speaking about criticism of the DSP, Adler-Milstein said, "The argument against it is whether this [initiative] should be coming from the brands themselves, that if it isn't coming from the brands it's never going to have their support." Gaining the support of the brands, or at least pressuring them to be accountable to those who manufacture their apparel, is a primary reason for university involvement. Although university licensing contracts represent a tiny portion of the overall apparel market, Adler-Milstein said, "The really important thing is that universities have an incredible amount of power and have led the way in making space for positive change." In its decision to adopt the DSP, Brown joined other prominent universities, including Columbia, Cornell and the entire University of California system. But for USAS activists, getting those schools, and Brown, to affiliate has been a long struggle.
Sweatshops out of our Brown sweat-shirts
Although the Brown University Community Council voted unanimously to join the DSP and have official decision-making power with regard to it, the university administration was not always eager to get on board.
The DSP campaign began in the fall of 2005, when the SLA gathered student signatures and began to negotiate formally with the administration. They formed a working group but could not generate enough pressure to get the DSP passed. The momentum dwindled, with the DSP mired in working-group meetings.
This past fall, Adler-Milstein said, the SLA decided "enough was enough." Students began going to Corporation meetings to generate its support, collected signatures and letters and managed to get over 200 letters of support from parents at Parents' Weekend. They demanded the University take action on the DSP, beyond just agreeing to talk about it. A parent presented the letters to President Simmons at her Parents' Weekend address and asked her to publicly support the DSP. After a two-and-a-half-year SLA struggle and the BUCC's February vote, the President's Cabinet approved the DSP. It will go into effect this fall.
The hope is that Brown's decision will influence other schools nationally and encourage them to affiliate. Walter Hunter, vice president of administration and chief risk officer, who worked with the SLA around the DSP, wrote to the Independent that "despite the fact that 90 percent of the 75 schools with the largest licensing programs have not expressed support for the program," the university believes "that the DSP is an innovative proposal that merits the university's support and that it has the potential of providing sustainable improvements in working conditions for workers producing Brown-licensed apparel."
While Brown works to implement the DSP, Pujols and Castillo continue their speaking tour to New York City high schools, Midwest universities and Washington, DC to meet with FLA representatives. They will end up in North Carolina at Hanes' worldwide headquarters. There, they've secured a meeting with Hanes president Joia Johnson where they will present their evidence regarding the TOS factory and ask her to support the union. The meeting represents a significant victory in their struggle and may have resulted from heightened awareness and student support. With the backing of the kind of student power that mobilized to make the DSP a reality at campuses across the country, Hanes may think twice about defending its union-busting factories.
Don't sweat SIMONE LANDON B'10.