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USC Apparel Still At Center Of Labor Rights Controversy

Max Hoiland |
February 15, 2012 | 10:46 a.m. PST

Staff Writer

(Cara Palmer)
(Cara Palmer)
The University of Southern California has recently been fighting problems of labor rights violations on multiple fronts. The vast majority of USC clothing is made in factories abroad, and USC has not taken strong enough measures to avoid supporting worker exploitation in an industry in which sweatshops are the standard.

USC recently signed a 10-year exclusive licensing deal with Silver Star Merchandising (SSM), the apparel brand that produces clothing for the Dallas Cowboys. Just last month, an ESPN reporter added to a growing list of recorded labor abuses committed by SSM. ESPN entered factories in Cambodia and showcased their findings of $0.29/hour wages, forced overtime of 60 hours per week, and abusive managers, in a 15-minute documentary.

Perhaps most alarming about USC's partnership with SSM, a company with no experience producing college apparel behind closed doors, is the way in which USC decided to make this deal: without the input of members of USC's Student Coalition Against Labor Exploitation (SCALE). Despite SCALE's 13-year-long presence on campus and ongoing communication with administration regarding labor issues, USC decided to avoid informing SCALE about their controversial deal with SSM until after it had been finalized. As this decision, to keep hidden a deal obviously relevant to the concerns of USC’s labor rights group, was made by an administration that prides itself on respecting its students, the secrecy constituted a deep breach of trust.

In seeking to rebuild that trust, SCALE delivered a letter and 84 Valentine’s Day cards to the office of President Nikias yesterday to demonstrate student support for robust anti-sweatshop policies, and also to reach out to administration in the interest of working together to ensure that USC’s apparel is made and sold with respect and dignity.

While USC maintains that its own in-house labor rights codes and protections are apt deterrents to worker abuses, the factory investigations mandated by USC are funded by the very brands the monitors are auditing. This calls into question the independence and effectiveness of USC’s entire monitoring system, because of the conflict of interest inherent within it. The sources of the money for the investigations seem to have an interest in not finding or revealing labor abuses, thereby exposing sweatshop conditions and opening the door for criticism. The fruit of this troubling approach to “protecting” workers can be (not) found in the repeated reports of labor abuses committed by brands like SSM.

Concerned students call on USC to affiliate with the only non-corporate-funded factory monitor, the Worker Rights Consortium (WRC), which has a proven record of resolving sweatshop abuses and forcing companies to take seriously the rights and grievances of their workers.

Let's hope that student labor advocates and USC administrators can soon find common ground and develop a more loving relationship when it comes to discussions of workers' rights.


To get involved with SCALE at USC, contact them here.



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