On Jan. 1, Gonzaga became the third university in the country to update its contract with Nike by adopting protocol that will give the Workers Rights Consortium (WRC), an independent labor rights monitoring organization, the ability to conduct investigations on the working conditions of factories manufacturing school apparel.
The contract was updated through the efforts of GU faculty and student advocates representing the United Student Against Sweatshops (USAS), the nation’s largest youth-led, student labor campaign organization.
According to Mary Joan Hahn, the university’s director of Community & Public Relations, GU students representing the USAS began raising the issue to administrators in 2013, well before the Nike contract was up for revision.
“They [USAS] have provided thoughtful and consistent advocacy, and have kept our attention on these priorities,” Hahn said in a written statement. “This gives the University an additional verification organization that can audit the manufacturing process to ensure workers’ rights and fair labor codes are upheld.”
In October 2015, the WRC began to document violation of university labor standards in Nike’s Hansea, a Vietnam factory that produces collegiate-branded apparel for universities across the country such as GU.
A final, detailed report published by the WRC in 2016 highlighted the harsh conditions for over 8,500 workers at Hansea: excessive production quotas, physical abuse by managers, forced overtime, denial of sick leave, discriminatory dismissal of pregnant workers, and wage violations.
Jose Solis, second year student and current USAS club president picked up the work that previous club members had started by galvanizing support from community members during the 2016-17 academic school year.
“At first, I didn’t know I had to revitalize it, it was kind of dead. I don’t remember why but I just started going through the hoops of starting it,” Solis said. “Eventually I started going to cultural club meetings and doing ‘class-wraps’ presentations to get the word out.”
These ‘class-wrap’ presentations were conducted in several sociology classes, in which Jose and his core group explained instances of unfair labor practices and accountability measures in sweatshops across the globe to GU students.
Angeles Solis, Jose’s sister and an International Campaigns Coordinator for USAS, helped guide the club in finding ways to advocate within GU’s institution.
“It’s students that hold administrations accountable in putting the interests of workers and student voice over the profit that is offered by the corporations that universities contract with,” Angeles said. “Most of the time It looks like students building awareness on their campus, doing non-violent direct action to build power to ensure that the institution makes decisions that don't harm workers and students.”
Last March, USAS members wrote a couple of letters to President Thayne McCulloh, urging GU to implement WRC protocol within Nike’s contract to uphold the university’s mission statement.
A month later, Sophorn Yang, president of the Cambodian Alliance of Trade Unions and a delegate of the United Nations Conference on the Status of Women came to GU to speak on behalf of USAS.
Though she had only one member in the audience during her talk, the group decided to march through campus with a banner and meet with GU’s Chief of Staff, John Sklut, who has been the main communicator between GU administrators and USAS for negotiations.
“In my conversations with the student group, one of the key pieces that we certainly could always agree on was the desired outcome,” Sklut said. “Thankfully through working in tandem with the students we’ve been able to accomplish our mutually desired outcome.”
USAS members and Sklut have been meeting throughout last semester to discuss the status of contract negotiations with Nike.
“I think it [meetings] has been respectful, continuing, ongoing dialogue that has made a bottom-line difference in the contract,” Hahn said. “It’s key to work together on shared values.”
The updated contract was modeled after the University of Washington’s precedent-setting contract that was put into effect on Oct. 9. Provisions include labor code standards that specifically address worker rights for women in these factories.
The provisions protect women workers from unfair wages, pregnancy tests from employers, pressured use of contraceptives, repercussions for maternity leave, and exposure to hazardous material that may endanger their reproductive health.
“I was excited that we got the contract [WRC] but the fact that we got this whole new section about women’s’ rights was remarkable,” said sophomore USAS member Tess Allen. “The fact that GU is going out of its way to make sure women are being treated equally really resonated with me.”
The WRC will be allowed to request and gain access to Nike factories manufacturing Gonzaga apparel to ensure that IMG College Licensing Labor Code Standards are being upheld for workers. Nike is responsible in granting access to these factory facilities and personnel, and must allow the WRC to take photographs, copy documents, and interview factory workers and manager. Detailed summaries of findings are then created by the WRC with the intention of developing remediation plans in a timely manner.
The news of the updated contract was presented to USAS in a meeting with Sklut last Friday on the second floor of College Hall.
“We did this together as a group, as students for a cause,” freshman USAS member Saron Almaw said. “We’re not going to stop here, what’s next is always going through our heads. Hopefully USAS continues to build and more people can join us.”
A delegation from GU’s USAS will travel to the USAS National Conference on Feb. 23-24 at Rutgers University. The club is seeking additional funding to send more of its members on the trip.
Ronnie Estoque is a staff writer. Follow Ronnie on Twitter @RonnieEstoque.