May 16, 2003

Guest Commentary

American Universities Must Help Unionize Dominican Sweatshops

By Juleyka Lantigua

With baseball season swinging into full gear, take a look at the “made in” label inside the baseball caps many of us wear. You may be surprised to learn that the cap you’re wearing was made under inhumane working conditions in places like the Dominican Republic.

Sweatshop workers stitch logos into caps for Major League Baseball, the NHL, the NBA and the NFL.

Many college caps are made there, too. One company, BJ&B, for example, manufactures caps for the Universities of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, Missouri, Connecticut, Arizona, Luisiana State, Cornell, Northwestern, Penn State, Tulane and Purdue.

College logo apparel sales are estimated at $2.5 billion annually, according to the Chicago Tribune. The industry is a classic profit pyramid, with workers constituting the exploited bottom rung.

Here’s how it works: A university licenses its name and logo to American apparel distributors -- such as Nike, Starter, Champion and Reebok -- and earns about $1.50 per cap. BJ&B pays the worker 8 cents per cap. At that pay rate, a worker takes home $40 for a typical 56-hour work week, as calculated by UNITED, an anti-sweatshop lobbying group. The total cost of making the cap comes out to about $6.08, but consumers pay about $19.95 for the cap.

The big winners are BJ&B’s corporate parent, Yoopong Group in Korea, one of the largest cap producers in the world, and the American corporations that act as middlemen. Yoopong makes 14.4 million caps in the Dominican Republic alone.

The Spanish name for the industrial areas is “zona franca.” It translates into “industrial free-trade zone,” which means companies located there are exempt from import fees and income taxes. But for tens of thousands of Dominican factory workers, what it really means is “unregulated worker-exploitation zone.”

Thanks to continued pressure from American universities and companies, BJ&B workers were allowed to form a union in March and settled their first contract with management. The unionized workers now constitute the largest democratic, independent union in the free-trade zones of Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean.

More unions are necessary. Working conditions at many of the 500 foreign-owned factories throughout the country are reprehensible. Health and safety hazards, arbitrary disciplining by ruthless managers, women being forced to take pregnancy tests prior to being hired, forced overtime, wage discrimination against women, no safe drinking water, no benefits, no overtime or productivity incentives are commonplace.

“They would humiliate you verbally, but you took it because there was no other place to work,” a former BJ&B worker-turned-activist told The New York Times recently.

Fortunately, many college students have recognized the need to act against sweatshops. United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS) has mobilized almost 200 university groups to compel their schools to take action. One of the demands is a unified code to regulate and monitor the factories.

So far Duke, Brown and Notre Dame are among the universities that have adopted a version of the Code of Conduct for University Trademark Licensees, which make the manufacturer subject to labor and human-rights standards. The code requires public disclosure of factory addresses, living wages, independent monitoring, freedom to unionize, safe working conditions, no forced labor, no child labor, women’s rights and independent monitoring.

“Sweatshops are hidden and they proliferate as long as they’re hidden,” asserts Steven Weingarten of the Union of Needletrade, Industrial and Textile Employees.

American universities and professional sports leagues ought to step up to the place and demand decent pay and better working conditions for the people who make our caps.

Originally from the Dominican Republic, Juleyka Lantigua is a free-lance journalist in New York City. She can be reached at pmproj@progressive.org.

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