Two Former Nike Workers that Made Cornell Apparel Speak to Students about Abuses in the Apparel Industry

On Thursday November 4, two workers who spent years working in Nike sweatshops making clothes for Cornell came to talk to students about their experience.

Maritza Vargas and Gina Cano united with students to transform Nike’s sweatshop abuses into historic victories for workers’ rights.  “I am really excited to meet with the Nike workers we fought alongside with.  It is an opportunity to see the tangible results that students can have to bring about justice,” said Gleb Drobkov ’12, Treasurer of Cornell Students Against Sweatshops (CSAS) Gina now works for the CGT union in Honduras, and Maritza works at the Alta Gracia factory in the Dominican Republic.

In January 2009, Nike subcontractor Haddad Group closed two factories (Hugger de Honduras and Vision Tex) that predominately produced goods for Nike, including university apparel.  1,800 workers were laid off without getting paid their legally required severance. Last semester, CSAS united with Cornell Organization for Labor Action and other student groups on campus and at other schools to bring justice to the workers.  After a prolonged campaign, Cornell threatened to cut its contract with Nike.  Nike responded by paying the workers the money they were owed, as well as granting them healthcare and training for a year.

“Nike plays a key role in setting up the worldwide apparel system that its contractors and subcontractors work in,” said Alex Bores ’13, President of CSAS. “Nike plays factory against factory, causing them to shave a penny here and a penny there, creating an ultra-competitive environment that drives down wages and gives factory owners virtually no choice but to disrespect workers’ basic rights. This case shows that even the largest corporations are vulnerable to student pressure.”

Along with recounting her experiences in a Nike factory a decade ago, which was shut down after workers fought for a union, Maritza will talk about her current experiences working for Alta Gracia, operating with a union and where workers earn a living wage.  Colin Foley ‘14, said “Alta Gracia is a model that we see spreading to the rest of the apparel industry.  There is no responsible way to do business without paying workers a living wage and respecting their right to organize.”

The workers will also discuss the role that the Worker Rights Consortium (WRC) played in their victories.  The WRC is an independent monitoring agency that acts as a watchdog for apparel manufacturers.  It is independent of corporations and responsive to workers’ claims. Gina and Maritza will be talking about the absence of the Fair Labor Association (FLA), a notoriously weak monitoring agency that is run by the corporations themselves.  Both organizations rely on funding from university who are affiliated in order to function.

On Friday, October 29, a delegation of students delivered President Skorton a letter demanding that the university disaffiliate from the FLA.  Students also presented Skorton with an Alta Gracia t-shirt as a token of appreciation for his efforts in the Nike “Just Pay It” campaign, acknowledging that Cornell played a huge role in the victory for the workers, and can continue to make a difference in the garment industry by supporting brands that respect workers.

“Students appreciate Cornell’s dedication to workers’ rights, and we now call on the University to reaffirm its commitment by disaffiliating with the FLA,” said Casey Sweeney ’13, Regional Organizer for United Students Against Sweatshops.  “The FLA has proven time and time again, whether it be in the case of Adidas, Russell or Nike, that it cares more about protecting the companies that sit on their boards than the workers making our apparel.”

Alta Gracia Apparel in the Cornell Store

Alta Gracia Apparel in the Cornell Store

About the Author

Alex Bores is a sophomore in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations at Cornell University. He was born and raised in New York City by two union members. Alex does labor research with Professor Kate Bronfenbrenner. Alex is the treasurer of the Cornell Roosevelt Institute, Treasurer of Conflict-Free Cornell, Vice President for Community Outreach of Half in Ten, Vice President of the Cornell Forensics Society and President of Cornell Students Against Sweatshops.