Cornell Publicly Condemns Nike’s Labor Practices

The newly charged Licensing Oversight Committee, comprised of administrators, staff, faculty, and students, set up to take charge of the enforcement of the University’s code of conduct with regards to apparel purchases, met for the first time Tuesday, March 16.  The committee was created in response to Cornell Students Against Sweatshop’s campaign to force Nike to pay over $2.1 million in severance pay to Honduran workers, and to address any future alleged violations of its purchasing agreements.

In 2006, Cornell endorsed the Designated Suppliers Program (DSP). The DSP is a university procurement policy adopted by universities throughout the US, Canada, and the UK, that sets standards for labor practices for all licensees of university logos. The DSP factory conditions are audited by the Worker Rights Consortium (WRC), an independent monitoring agency free from company interference.  The committee will work to uphold the principles of the DSP here at Cornell.

The members of the committee are Mike Powers, Director of Operations in the office of University Communications, students Alex Bores ’13, Bill Peterson ’10, Professors Sarosh Kuruvilla and Lance Compa from the ILR school, Gary Swisher, the Assistant Director of Merchandise at the Cornell Store, Catherine Holmes from the Dean of Students Office, Kyle Kubick, Business Manager in the office of University Communications, and Larry Quant, the Director of Financial Operations for Athletic and Physical Education.

First on the agenda was how to handle Russell’s contract with Cornell.   Russell had previously supplied merchandise to the Cornell store, but that contract was terminated after it was judged the company had violated the University’s code of conduct by shutting down a unionized factory in Honduras as soon as the workers there exercised their right to bargain collectively.  After a long campaign that in large part built off of Cornell Students Against Sweatshops success in persuading the Cornell Store to drop Russell, the company reopened the factory and recognized the union in November.  The New York Times called it the largest victory in the history of the student anti-sweatshop movement. In light of this responsible action from Russell, the Committee agreed to reward the company for correcting its mistakes and to begin sourcing from them again, acknowledging Russell’s efforts to improve working conditions and labor relations.

“Russell stood up and did the right thing, and for that they should be rewarded,” said Bill Peterson, 10, a member of CSAS and the committee.  “Instead of creating a ‘race-to-the-bottom’ where companies search for the worst conditions and lowest wages, consumers can help workers around the world create a ‘race-to-the-top.’  By shunning the worst offenders and rewarding those companies that respect the rights and wishes of their workers, we can help workers around the world improve their own conditions.”

The focus of the meeting then shifted to Nike.  Nike has license to produce huge portions of Cornell’s athletic gear, as well as apparel for the Cornell store.  In January 2009, Nike subcontractors Haddad Group closed two factories (Hugger de Honduras and Vision Tex) that predominately produced goods for Nike, including university apparel.  Claiming economic reasons, Nike stopped sourcing from the unionized factories.  Both Nike and Haddad refused to pay the workers $2.5 million of legally mandated severance compensation.  After liquidation of the factories, the workers are still owed approximately $2.1 million.

CSAS has been campaigning all semester to condemn Nike for their lack of involvement and call them to take action to resolve the situation by putting real pressure of their subcontractors to pay these workers or to “Just Pay It” themselves.  The committee agreed to send a letter to Nike Headquarters publicly addressing concerns about the situation in Honduras.  The letter was officially sent on March 25, and expresses Cornell’s concern with the over $2 million in severance pay owed to the workers under Honduran law.  The University agrees with the finding of the WRC that Nike was the dominant brand produced there, contrary to claims from Nike, and “therefore find it unacceptable for Nike to ignore the plights of the displaced workers.”  Cornell considers these labor rights violations of the subcontractors to break university codes of conduct, to which Nike is obligated to follow.  The committee believes that since Nike has acknowledged its business relationships with these companies, Nike must “use its influence to convince them to remedy the violations.”  The letter requested a response from Nike officials by April 16.

“The letter is a great first step,” said Alex Bores, ’13, president of CSAS and a member of the committee, “but it is only a first step.  CSAS is prepared to escalate, to apply stronger pressure on Nike to compel the company to do everything in its power to correct the violations, and to everything in our power to get these workers the pay they deserve.”

“This is about student power,” Bores said.  “We, as consumers, have the power to help workers around the world who are demanding a better life for themselves, their families, and their communities.  We can help them lift themselves out of poverty.  For the Cornell Community, this is a moral imperative.”

Next Tuesday (4/6) and Wednesday (4/7) the USAS “Just Pay It” worker tour will be visiting Cornell. On Tuesday evening a worker from each the closed factories, Hugger de Honduras and Vision Tex, will share their struggles.  Wednesday morning they will meet with Cornell’s Licensing Oversight Committee and guest lecture in a class.

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