Commentary: Who Says Student Protests Don't Matter?

For several years, Nike, Gap, and most other leading U.S. garment makers have tried to placate anti-sweatshop activists by hiring auditors to inspect their overseas factories. But the industry has refused to make the audits public. Executives have insisted that they shouldn't have to air their dirty laundry until the factories--which are often owned by contractors--have a chance to fix any problems.

So it was a coup for activists when Nike Inc. declared on Apr. 24 that it would release the complete audits of the 600 plants that manufacture its shoes and apparel--gory details and all. Nike's reluctant move testifies to the surprising effectiveness of the three-year-old United Students Against Sweatshops (table, page 96). USAS, which has chapters on 50-odd campuses and supporters at dozens more, has mounted a growing campaign of pickets, rallies, and sit-ins to pressure garment makers. So far, it has prompted 48 colleges to join the Worker Rights Consortium (WRC), including all nine campuses of the University of California and athletic powerhouses such as the University of Michigan. USAS formed the WRC as an independent body to inspect factories that produce for the collegiate-licensing market. "They are gaining in strength," says James A. Koehne, general manager of the college division of VF Corp.'s Jansport unit, which makes clothes for 2,000 colleges.

Still, USAS may set back its own cause if it pushes the WRC idea too hard. Students have been pressuring universities to join the WRC and quit the Fair Labor Assn., the leading auditing system, which grew out of a Presidential task force of human-rights groups and companies such as Nike and Liz Claiborne Inc. Students see the FLA as an industry tool that provides cover for abuses rather than exposing them. Already, USAS has persuaded a half-dozen colleges to quit the FLA. If USAS discredits the FLA, it could collapse.

That would be bad news for the anti-sweatshop effort. The FLA may not be as strict as USAS, but it has been working for two years to develop an effective system and hire competent auditors. The WRC has only just formed a board of directors, composed of students, university officials, and human-rights experts, and it could take years for the new group to get up and running.

What's more, the WRC's planned source of revenue is the fee that companies pay colleges to license their names. This would underwrite a system to monitor the college market. But that's less than 2% of the $200 billion U.S. garment industry. A much bigger scheme is needed to inspect even a sample of the thousands of other factories that produce goods for the general public. The FLA, funded by major companies, is better-positioned for that gargantuan task.

MORE CLOUT. Rather than pit the WRC against the more established group, USAS should try to complement the FLA. The WRC wants to set higher standards by insisting on the publication of factory locations and audits. That's an important role for the consortium, but tackling sweatshops worldwide requires a more comprehensive system. "There's no inconsistency between the FLA being an industrywide code and other initiatives such as the WRC that try to keep the system honest," says Mike Posner, head of the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights, which helped form the FLA.

Still, students have gained more clout than they thought possible just last fall, when USAS began pressuring the industry to clean up its act. In October, Nike agreed to disclose the locations of 42 plants in 11 countries that make college apparel. Nike and others had for years insisted that such a move would let rivals steal its sourcing secrets. But knowing plant locations is a big deal to activists because it helps them know where to look for abuses. Nike's move to disclose has prompted dozens of companies, such as Jansport and Reebok International Ltd., to release the locations of their factories.

Plenty of resistance remains. Nike CEO Phil Knight has withdrawn $30 million he was giving to his alma mater, the University of Oregon, after it joined the WRC. And Nike still won't reveal the sites of its other 560-odd factories. Levi Strauss & Co. won't release such information outside the FLA, to which it belongs. Still, arguments against disclosure are more difficult to make now. "Nike was the first; now, others will have to follow," says Jeremy Blasi, a senior at the University of California at Berkeley.

USAS scored another win when Nike agreed to publicize its factory audits. For years, human-rights groups have denounced corporate inspections as shams because they're funded by the manufacturer being inspected. Companies have defended the process. Now, critics will be able to see how audits are performed and compare them with their own research.

The real test for USAS will come as it sorts out the WRC's role. If the WRC ever succeeds in launching inspections, Nike and others that sell at WRC colleges will have to submit to its conditions or give up the sales. In any case, students have shown that the industry can go a lot further than execs had insisted was possible.

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