Officials are not sure if Penn apparel is made under harsh conditions. and Ian Rosenblum Though the University does not have an official policy on the use of sweatshop labor for college-logo apparel, Penn officials say they are working with other college administrators to develop one. The issue has gained prominence in recent weeks as students at Duke and Georgetown universities and the University of Wisconsin at Madison have held well-publicized sit-ins to demand that their schools adopt strict codes of conduct prohibiting the use of sweatshop labor and that they disclose the locations of all factories manufacturing the school's insignia apparel. This week, students at several Ivy League schools held lower-key protests, where they made similar demands. Officials from seven of the eight Ivy schools held a meeting this week in New York City to discuss possible guidelines -- with Penn the only absentee. But the University says it is in the process of developing its policy on labor practices in coordination with other groups, including the Ivy League. While the University is doing so, however, a number of the clothing manufacturers who make Penn apparel use factories located in developing countries known for poor working conditions. In an attempt to ensure that sweatshops are not used in the production of Penn clothing, the University has in place a number of preventative measures -- such as asking potential licensees to list the locations where they have factories and reserving the right to inspect the premises. But in at least the past three years, Penn has never taken advantage of its right to do so. And the policy requiring a general list of locations is new and thus has not had an impact on the current licensees. "We're growing in our understanding, our sensitivity of this issue," said Managing Director of Penn's Center for Technology Transfer Louis Berneman, whose office is responsible for licensing the University's name and logos. Despite the precautions, Berneman conceded that some Penn apparel could be produced using sweatshop labor. "I have no way of knowing the answer to that," he said, adding that, "I think it would be foolish on my part to rule that out." A sampling conducted by The Daily Pennsylvanian of a number of companies who make Penn apparel sold at the University Bookstore revealed that many products are assembled in countries including El Salvador, Mexico, Sri Lanka, Honduras, China and Taiwan, where there have been allegations of brutal treatment of workers and sub-poverty pay levels. Though many of the companies said they have business codes of conduct aimed at preventing sweatshop labor, all manufacturers asked by the DP to provide the addresses of the overseas factories they use declined to do so or said the information was not immediately available. And while there are no known allegations that involve the Penn name, not all of the firms the University contracts with inspect the factories that produce their goods. For example, the Jones & Mitchell apparel company, which is a Penn licensee, produces goods through factories in Honduras, Mexico, Bangladesh and India, according to the company's director of purchasing. "We absolutely do not do business with anybody who has sweatshops," Jerry Quickel stressed. But because the company uses external agents to contract with and monitor overseas factories, Jones & Mitchell does not have direct knowledge of what occurs at their sites. "We have to [use the agents]," Quickel said. "We're just not big enough." Other Penn-apparel manufacturers with overseas factories, however, say they do inspect the plants they use. "Before we send any work to any factory we go and do an inspection, and it must comply with the rules of reason that it's a comfortable and safe workplace," MV Sports President Josh Pyser said. "We continue to monitor our factories. We're very careful about these things." Pyser said that while his company is a Penn licensee, the University has never asked him to ensure adequate working conditions in his factories. He added, however, that he has been asked repeatedly by Barnes & Noble College Bookstores -- which operates the University Bookstore -- to sign a business code of conduct promising fair labor practices. According to the company's business code, B&N; College Bookstores "reserves the right to cancel any and all purchase orders and return product with any resource found to be in violation" of their standards. The company asks its vendors annually to sign the code and return it by the end of December, spokesperson Erica Moffett said. B&N; College Bookstores, however, does not check up on its vendors throughout the year -- relying instead on each manufacturer to honestly report its labor conditions. "We are relying on the companies' good faith to trust that they are dealing honestly," Moffett said. "I feel that we took a strong stand on all of this by asking our vendors to sign the code of conduct." She added that B&N; College Bookstores has not had any reason to cancel any purchase orders because all of the companies it contracts with have signed the code of conduct, promising to monitor facilities. "At this point we haven't had any violations we know of," Moffett said. Anti-sweatshop groups have long campaigned for stricter regulations, claiming that strategies like Penn's do not reach the core of the issue. "Not one single worker had ever heard of a U.S. company code of conduct," National Labor Committee Executive Director Charles Kernaghan said of his experience with workers in developing countries. Kernaghan said that an effective anti-sweatshop policy would have three elements -- public disclosure of factories' names and locations, a "real demand for the respect of workers' rights" and the guarantee of a "living wage" above the subsistence level. "A living wage will help these young workers climb out of misery and into poverty. We can ask that much of Nike and Champion and Russell and the rest of them," he said, adding that he has no knowledge of specific violations by these particular companies. And Kernaghan -- whose organization came forward with the 1996 allegation that television personality Kathie Lee Gifford's clothing line was being produced in sweatshops -- stressed that universities have a large role to play in the anti-sweatshop movement. "Everything [a college] stands for is really what this whole struggle is about," he explained. Kernaghan added that students, more than any other group, have the power to effect change. "The companies go into a panic because they can't point to the students and say, 'You're a special interest group,' " he said. "The companies are frightened to death of students." Penn's Berneman also pointed to the power of group movement, saying that Penn's best chance at an effective policy is in working with other schools. "We will have far greater leverage over those manufacturers [when we work with other universities] than any individual institution," he noted. As a result, Penn is working with the other Ivy League schools and the Association for Collegiate Licensing Administration to develop its policy, which would ultimately have to be approved by Penn President Judith Rodin after review by several offices. Berneman said the University's lack of representation at this week's meetings was due to a "scheduling conflict," and "certainly not a lack of interest." And he said he expects "some resolution in the near future." Daily Pennsylvanian staff writer Eric Tucker contributed to this article.Comments powered by Disqus
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