Archive for the ‘Supply Chain’ Category

Wal-Mart and Disney: Two Varieties of Corporate Irresponsibility

Thursday, May 16th, 2013

toysfromhellIt’s difficult to decide which company is acting in the more irresponsible fashion in the wake of the terrible Rana Plaza industrial accident in Bangladesh: Wal-Mart, which continues to source goods from the country but refuses to join a group of other companies in signing a binding agreement to improve factory conditions; or Disney, which simply decided to end its use of suppliers in Bangladesh and several other countries.

Both companies have a dismal record when it comes to sourcing from poor countries. Wal-Mart has been embroiled in controversies regarding labor practices by its foreign suppliers since at least 1992, when media outlets such as NBC’s Dateline reported that some of the company’s Asian suppliers were making use of illegal child labor.

In 2005 the International Labor Rights Fund filed suit against Wal-Mart in federal court in Los Angeles, charging that employees of the company’s suppliers in China, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Swaziland and Nicaragua were forced to work overtime without pay and in some cases were fired for supporting union organizing efforts. Unfortunately, the case was thrown out on legal technicalities.

After a November 2012 fire at a Bangladeshi garment factory supplying Wal-Mart and other Western companies killed more than 100 workers, the Wall Street Journal found that the factory managed to continue working for Wal-Mart despite third-part inspections that had raised concerns about fire safety.

Disney has been targeted over conditions in its foreign supplier factories since 1996, when a report published by the National Labor Committee (now the Institute for Global Labour and Human Rights) alleged that clothing contractors in Haiti producing “Mickey Mouse” and “Pocahontas” pajamas for U.S. companies under license with Disney were in some cases paying as little as 12 cents an hour, below the minimum wage in that country.

In a follow-up report, the group found that the contractors had raised wages to the legal minimum of about 28 cents an hour but said this still left workers living “on the edge of misery,” especially since they were often short-changed by employers.

Over the following two decades, groups such as China Labor Watch and Hong Kong-based Students and Scholars Against Corporate Misconduct (SACOM) have produced a steady stream of reports documenting abuses in Disney supplier factories, especially in China, concerning wages, working conditions and safety. The company has generally brushed off the criticism, saying it could not possibly monitor all of the facilities. It even refused to release a list of its supplier factories.

It thus comes as no surprise that neither Disney nor Wal-Mart is playing a constructive role in helping prevent a repetition of disasters like Rana Plaza. In the case of Wal-Mart, it is likely that the key reasons for its refusal to join with companies such as H&M and Carrefour are that the agreement they signed is legally binding and that international labor federations such as IndustriALL and UNI were involved in making the accord happen. Bangladeshi unions are also signatories to the agreement.

Wal-Mart, of course, is notorious for its aversion to any form of cooperation with unions (except the subservient ones in China). In its dealings with community groups and other non-profits, the company is equally infamous for avoiding binding agreements—preferring to give itself the ability to wiggle out of any commitments it may pretend to make. The National Retail Federation, which shares Wal-Mart’s attitude toward unions, defiantly rejected the accord, while The Gap justified its refusal to sign by warning of the possibility of lawsuits. In other words, like Wal-Mart, it apparently wants an agreement that will do little more than burnish its corporate image.

Disney is acting as if it can simply wash its hands of the problems in Bangladesh by cutting off its suppliers in that country. That does nothing to help the workers who had grown dependent on the jobs its licensees had created, as bad as they were. Liana Foxvog of Sweatfree Communities and Judy Gearhart of the International Labor Rights Forum got it right when they published a column on the New York Times website calling the move “shameful.”

The accord is an important step forward in addressing both the immediate problem of industrial safety in Bangladesh and in starting to make large corporations truly responsible for ameliorating the brutal working conditions they all too often help create in countries with large numbers of desperate workers.

Note: This piece draws from my new Corporate Rap Sheet on Disney, which can be found here.

The Collapse of Wal-Mart’s Social Responsibility Charade

Thursday, June 7th, 2012

For the past eight years, Wal-Mart has pursued an image campaign apparently inspired by the Marx Brothers line: “Who you gonna believe, me or your own eyes?”

Despite the preponderance of evidence of its unenlightened practices, the company has tried to give the impression that it is really a model corporate citizen. Recent events suggest that the giant retailer’s social responsibility charade is now crumbling.

Through all of its scandals and controversies over the years, Wal-Mart could at least count on the support of its institutional shareholders, which for a long time turned a blind eye to the company’s transgressions and focused on its growth. Now even that is changing. The recently released results of voting at the company’s annual meeting indicate unprecedented discontent with its leadership. Not counting the large bloc of shares controlled by descendants of founder Sam Walton, more than 30 percent of the votes were cast against CEO Mike Duke, board chair Rob Walton and former CEO and board member Lee Scott. In the past, Wal-Mart board members typically had approval rates close to 100 percent.

The high degree of no-confidence this time around is largely attributable to the fallout from an 8,000-word exposé by New York Times alleging that high-level executives at the company quashed an internal investigation of foreign bribery. Before the annual meeting, the California State Teachers’ Retirement System filed a lawsuit against current and former Wal-Mart executives and board members for breach of their fiduciary duties in connection with the bribery scandal.

That scandal also appears to have played a significant role in Wal-Mart’s decision to cave in to calls to suspend its membership in the American Legislative Exchange Council, which is under siege for its role in promoting “stand your ground” laws such as the one in Florida linked to the shooting of Trayvon Martin. In the past, Wal-Mart, long a stalwart member of ALEC, would have ignored pressure of the kind being exerted by the anti-ALEC campaign.

By all rights, the disintegration of Wal-Mart’s responsibility image should have come from its retrograde labor and employment practices, which were the main reason for the public relations effort but which didn’t substantially change during the campaign. The company has never strayed from its uncompromising opposition to unions (except for toothless ones in China). The Organization United for Respect at Walmart is not a conventional union-organizing effort, yet the company recently fired several activists in the group in an apparent act of intimidation.

In its 1.4 million-employee U.S. retail operations, Wal-Mart has maintained a low-road approach of meager wages, inadequate benefits and overuse of part-timers. Workers at its more than 100 distribution centers had enjoyed somewhat better conditions, but it appears that is no longer the case. A new report from the National Employment Law Project finds that the company is increasingly using logistics subcontractors and temp agencies that engage in rampant wage-and-hour abuses and other labor-law violations.

In the latest in a long line of its own fair labor standards cases, Wal-Mart was recently forced by the U.S. Labor Department to pay $5.3 million in back pay, penalties and damages for violating overtime rules. Although the U.S. Supreme Court came to Wal-Mart’s rescue last year by blocking a massive class-action sex discrimination case, several non-class actions have been brought in recent months making the same allegations on behalf of thousands of women.

One area in which Wal-Mart believes it has attained a measure of legitimacy is environmental policy. It has succeeded in winning over some green groups, which cannot resist the temptation of working with such a mammoth company to change industry standards.

Yet the funny thing about Wal-Mart’s green initiatives is that most of them involve changes that the retailer is requiring from its suppliers, who are expected to bear the costs of altering their products and their packaging. This is consistent with Wal-Mart’s longstanding practice of forcing suppliers to cut their wholesale prices to the bone. When Wal-Mart does take steps on its own, such as in reducing energy usage in its facilities, those reforms are ones that reduce its operating costs and thus add to its bottom line.

Even if you believe it is okay for Wal-Mart to boost its profits while pressing suppliers to be more environmentally responsible, it’s important to remember that many of those suppliers are in countries such as China where oversight is difficult. A recent investigative report in Mother Jones found that Wal-Mart’s monitoring of Chinese plants left a lot to be desired and that this is causing frustration among some of the environmentalists who have been working with the company.

A report by Stacy Mitchell of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance finds that Wal-Mart’s domestic green initiatives, such as using more renewable energy sources, are also faltering, while the company ignores the detrimental environmental impacts of its land use practices. All this is compounded, Mitchell notes, by Wal-Mart’s extensive political contributions to candidates who are global warming deniers or otherwise have poor voting records on the environment.

The demise of  Wal-Mart’s phony social responsibility initiative poses a fascinating question: Can the company return to its old critics-be-damned stance, or will it finally have to make some genuine reforms in the way it does business?

Targeting Target

Thursday, May 26th, 2011

Logo of the UFCW's Target campaign

The news of a union organizing drive at a group of Target Corporation stores in the New York City area raises the tantalizing possibility that the master of cheap chic may finally be knocked off its pedestal.

For years, Target has used its stylish image to obscure the fact that many of its employment and other practices are not significantly different from those of its scandal-ridden rival, Wal-Mart. It’s even managed to get itself included on a list of the “world’s most ethical corporations.”

Target’s stores, like those of Wal-Mart’s U.S. operations, are entirely non-union, and the company intends to keep them that way. The New York Times account of the organizing drive has Jim Rowader, Target’s vice president for labor relations, spouting the usual corporate rhetoric about how a union (the UFCW) would undermine the supposed trust that the company has built up with its workers. BNA’s Labor Relations Week (subscription-only) reports that Target is subjecting workers to captive meetings “conducted by store management in an attempt to dissuade workers from seeking union representation.”

Since no representation elections have been held yet, it is unclear whether Target will follow the lead of Wal-Mart in eliminating the jobs of those who dare to vote in favor of a union.

Target does not have a reputation quite as abhorrent as that of Wal-Mart when it comes to other employment practices, but neither is its record untarnished.  It has been accused of subjecting its largely part-time workforce to the same abuses—inadequate wages, restrictions on health coverage, overtime violations, etc.—seen among other big-box retailers. Though not as often as Wal-Mart, Target has shown up on lists prepared by state governments of the employers with the most workers or their dependents receiving taxpayer-funded healthcare benefits. Target has fought against living wage campaigns, most notably in Chicago in 2006, when it threatened to cancel plans for two new stores in the city unless Mayor Richard Daley vetoed a wage ordinance (which he did).

Target has also faced accusations relating to the treatment of minority applicants and employees. In 2007 the company paid a total of more than $1.2 million to settle cases brought by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission involving alleged racial discrimination in hiring in Wisconsin and a racially hostile environment in Pennsylvania.

There have been controversies involving the treatment of workers by Target suppliers and contractors, as well.  In 2002 Target was one of a group of retailers that together paid $20 million to settle class-action lawsuits charging them with permitting sweatshop conditions at factories run by their suppliers in Saipan, part of the U.S. Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands in the Pacific. A 2006 report by SOMO, a Dutch research center on transnational corporations, documented other instances in which Target garment suppliers were reported to be abusing workers and the retailer did little in response.

Target has a history of hiring janitorial contractors for its U.S. stores that tend to engage in rampant wage theft. In 2004 one such contractor, Global Building Services, paid $1.9 million to settle an overtime-violation case brought by the federal government on behalf of immigrant workers.  In 2009 another Target cleaning contractor, Prestige Maintenance USA, settled an overtime lawsuit for up to $3.8 million.

Labor practices are not the only area in which Target’s accountability record falls short. Earlier this year, the company had to pay $22.5 million to settle civil charges that its operations throughout California had violated laws relating to the dumping of hazardous wastes. Target has had a good record on gay rights, though last year the company found itself at the center of a controversy after it was revealed to have contributed to a business PAC which in turn contributed to a gubernatorial candidate in Minnesota who campaigned against gay marriage (among other reactionary positions).  Target later apologized.

And then there’s the matter of subsidies. Like Wal-Mart, Target has extracted lucrative tax breaks and other forms of financial assistance from many of the communities where it has built stores or distribution centers. One of its more audacious efforts was a proposal for a $1.7 billion mixed-use project in the Minneapolis suburb of Brooklyn Park, for which Target wanted more than $20 million in property tax abatements and a public contribution of $60 million for infrastructure costs. Despite seeking all this taxpayer assistance, Target demanded a waiver from the city’s living-wage policy for many contract and part-time workers who would be employed at the site.

Perhaps the best thing that can be said about Target, aside from its style, is that it is much smaller than Wal-Mart. Its total revenues are only about one-sixth of the worldwide sales (and less than one-quarter of U.S. sales) of the Bentonville behemoth. Target’s workforce of 355,000, all in the United States, is dwarfed by Wal-Mart’s domestic headcount of 1.4 million and another 700,000 abroad. Target thus has a much smaller impact on overall labor practices and the global supply chain.

What impact it does have is not salubrious. Now that it is facing some union pressure, let’s hope Target breaks from Wal-Mart and decides that it is makes sense to treat its workers with as much respect as its customers.

NOTE: Speaking of subsidies, the Subsidy Tracker database I created for Good Jobs First has just been expanded and now has more than 65,000 entries covering 154 subsidy programs in 37 states.

Haiti: Corporate Charity or Reparations?

Friday, January 22nd, 2010

After the New Orleans region was struck by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Wal-Mart scored a public relations coup by delivering emergency supplies quickly while government agencies stumbled. Ignoring the fact that the company’s vast distribution network made the feat relatively easy, awestruck journalists hailed the giant retailer as a “savior” for many of the storm’s victims.

The Behemoth of Bentonville has apparently not been performing any major logistics miracles for the people of Haiti in the wake of the recent devastating earthquake. The company is working mainly through the Red Cross, initially providing $500,000 in cash and food kits worth $100,000.

Although the company’s outlays have apparently increased a bit since its January 13 press release, the amount is still in the neighborhood of $1 million. To put that number in perspective, in 2008 Wal-Mart had profits of $22 billion, which works out to some $2.5 million an hour—every day of the year.

It is hard to be impressed at a commitment of 30 minutes worth of profits to help deal with a disaster of the magnitude facing Haiti. But this is not just an abstract issue of generosity.

Over the years, Wal-Mart has earned huge sums from the impoverished nation. Haiti is one of the low-wage countries where garment contractors have produced the goods that, despite Wal-Mart’s vaunted low prices, can be profitability sold in its network of Supercenters. It’s been going on for many years. A 1996 report on Haiti by the National Labor Committee noted that Wal-Mart was a major customer of sweatshops paying garment workers as little as 12 cents an hour.

In this time of dire need, Wal-Mart should feel pressure to make a commitment to the Haitian people of a magnitude comparable to the wealth it has extracted from the country over the years.

The question of the obligation of a company such as Wal-Mart to a situation such as Haiti is particularly relevant in light of the outrageous ruling by the Supreme Court in the Citizens United case. Thanks to the High Court’s corporate shills, Wal-Mart executives are probably already fantasizing about the unlimited slush funds they will have to sway elections and pressure incumbents to do their bidding.

Now is a good time to launch a movement to push corporations to do something with their money other than buying the political system. The outpouring of support for Haiti could be the springboard for a campaign that demands that Wal-Mart—and other major corporations that have benefited from the country’s cheap labor—provide not a bit of charity but rather a substantial amount in the form of reparations.

Perhaps the way to start is to call for disclosure of an estimate of how much value Wal-Mart has extracted from the Haitian people. Rather than letting the company brag about its pittance of a voluntary contribution, it would be much more satisfying to see it have to negotiate an amount that would make a real difference for the country.

Can the Redlining of U.S. Workers Be Stopped?

Friday, November 20th, 2009

wind turbineWe’re meant to believe that corporations make their investment decisions based on carefully considered financial and competitive considerations. Yet a recent announcement by a Chinese manufacturer of turbines for wind energy shows how political pressure can quickly change business priorities.

In late October the company, A-Power Energy Generation Systems, announced that it had been chosen to supply some 240 turbines for a large wind farm planned for Texas. That would have been just another in a long series of manufacturing-goes-to-China stories, but for reports that the group launching the $1.5 billion project—a joint venture of China’s Shenyang Power, Texas-based Cielo Wind Power and private equity firm U.S. Renewable Energy Group—was intending to take advantage of U.S. government funding through the Recovery Act.

New York Senator Chuck Schumer raised a stink about this in an open letter to Energy Secretary Steven Chu, highlighting reports that while the Texas wind farm would create a modest number of local jobs, the much bigger employment impact—2,000 to 3,000 jobs—would be felt at A-Power’s factories in China.

The ensuing uproar—with protests coming from figures as divergent as Steelworkers union president Leo Gerard and rightwing Missouri Senator Kit Bond—got the joint venture’s attention. While not abandoning the plan to import turbines for the Texas wind farm, A-Power and U.S. Renewable Energy Group announced on November 17 that they would construct a new wind turbine factory in the United States with a workforce of about 1,000.

That’s good news for the job-starved American economy, but all the attention given to A-Power has obscured a set of larger problems concerning the U.S. renewable energy industry.

The first is that the operation of facilities such as wind farms does not generate much employment—once built, they basically run themselves. The real employment potential is in manufacturing the turbines and other components used to generate wind and solar energy.

The disturbing fact is that, with the exception of General Electric, large U.S. companies have shown little interest in domestic production of these components. This has created an opening for foreign firms such as Gamesa (from Spain), Vestas (Denmark), Siemens (Germany) and Sanyo (Japan) to capture a large share of U.S. production of wind and solar components. Over the past few years they have invested hundreds of millions of dollars in plants from Pennsylvania to Oregon—and have often received lavish state and local economic development subsidies for doing so.

Unfortunately, the economic crisis has taken its toll on this sector, and expansion plans are being curtailed or postponed. For example, wind turbine maker Vestas, which has invested heavily in Colorado and planned to boost its workforce in that state to 2,500, recently said it would slow its pace of hiring.

To make matters worse, some of the newer U.S.-based wind and solar manufacturing companies that claim to be interested in domestic production have been lured by the siren call of cheap overseas labor. Evergreen Solar, for instance, recently revealed that it plans to shift assembly of solar panels from its heavily subsidized plant in Devens, Massachusetts to Wuhan, China. It would follow in the footsteps of U.S. firms such as First Solar, which already does most of its manufacturing in Malaysia, and TPI Composites, which produces wind turbine blades in Mexico and China.

It’s also not the case that foreign firms are always worse than domestic ones when it comes to respecting the rights of workers. Within the wind and solar sector there are U.S. companies that seek to weaken their unions (such as GE) or keep them out altogether (e.g., DMI Industries, which fought a Teamsters organizing drive). At the same time, there is Spain’s Gamesa, which accepted the desire of its workers in Pennsylvania to unionize and has developed a cooperative relationship with the Steelworkers.

From a labor perspective, the issue is not whether a company is foreign or domestic. What counts is whether it is redlining U.S. workers or giving them a chance to participate in producing the components of the economy of the future.

Wal-Mart’s (Un)sustainability Index

Friday, July 24th, 2009

Del95400Wal-Mart has taken the latest in a long series of steps to make itself look good by imposing burdens on its suppliers. The mammoth retailer, which is thriving amid the recession, recently announced plans to require its more than 100,000 suppliers to provide information about their operations that would form the basis of a product sustainability index.

Rating products is a good idea. It’s already being done by various non-profit organizations that bring independence and legitimacy to the process. Wal-Mart, by contrast, brings a lot of negative baggage. In recent years, Wal-Mart has used a purported commitment to environmental responsibility to draw attention away from its abysmal record with regard to labor relations, wage and hour regulations, and employment discrimination laws. It also wants us to forget its scandalous tax avoidance policies and its disastrous impact on small competitors. The idea that a company with a business model based on automobile-dependent customers and exploitative supplier factories on the other side of the globe can be considered sustainable should be dismissed out of hand. Yet Wal-Mart is skilled at greenwashing and is, alas, being taken seriously by many observers who should know better.

On close examination, Wal-Mart’s latest plan is, like many of its previous social responsibility initiatives, rather thin. All the company is doing at first is to ask suppliers to answer 15 questions. Ten of these involve environmental issues such as greenhouse gas emissions, water use, waste generation and raw materials sourcing. The final five questions are listed under the heading of “People and Community: Ensuring Responsible and Ethical Production.”

Two of them involve “social compliance.” It is an amazing act of chutzpah for Wal-Mart, which probably keeps more sweatshops in business than any other company, to claim moral authority to ask suppliers about the treatment of workers in their supply chain.

The questions in this category seem to assume that suppliers don’t do their own manufacturing. This is a tacit acknowledgement of how Wal-Mart has forced U.S. manufacturers to shift production offshore, and often to outside contractors. Now Wal-Mart has to ask those companies to be sure they know the location of all the plants making their products and the quality of their output.

The point about quality was one that CEO Mike Duke (photo) emphasized when announcing the rating system. This is also highly disingenuous. For years, Wal-Mart was notorious for pressing suppliers to reduce the quality of their goods to keep down prices. Now the behemoth of Bentonville is suddenly a proponent of products that “are more efficient, that last longer and perform better.” Will Wal-Mart pay its suppliers higher prices to cover the costs of improving quality?

goodguideI can’t bring myself to jump on Wal-Mart’s bandwagon. If I want product ratings I will turn not to Mike Duke but rather to someone like Dara O’Rourke, who founded a website called Good Guide that rates consumer products and their producers using independently collected data from social investing firms such as KLD Research and non-profits such as the Environmental Working Group. It uses criteria such as labor rights, cancer risks and reproductive health hazards that are unlikely to ever find their way into the Wal-Mart index.

Good Guide also rates companies, including Wal-Mart, which receives a mediocre score of 5.3 (out of 10), and it reaches that level thanks to its marks on p.r.-related measures such as charitable contributions and some but not all environmental measures. In the category of Consumers it gets a 4.1, Corporate Ethics 3.9, and for Labor and Human Rights 4.1 (which is generous).

Maybe Wal-Mart should focus on improving its own scores before presuming to rate everyone else.

Sweatshops on Trial in North Carolina

Tuesday, August 19th, 2008

In April, I wrote about the efforts of my son Thomas and other students at the University of North Carolina to get UNC’s administration to endorse the Designated Suppliers Program (DSP), an initiative that seeks to improve the abysmal working conditions of employees at companies that produce university logo apparel—a big business for schools such as Carolina.

After pressing the matter for many months without getting a response, UNC student activists launched a sit-in this spring at the building containing the office of Chancellor James Moeser. The hope was that Moeser, who was planning to leave UNC, would resolve the DSP issue before departing. The administration tolerated the occupation (with certain ground rules) but dragged its feet on the supplier issue.  Finally, on May 2, after the sit-in had continued for 16 days, Moeser announced he would not act on the DSP. This prompted students to occupy his personal office. After police arrived and arrested one activist, most of the protesters left. Those who remained, including Thomas, were eventually arrested and charged with “failure to disperse.” Salma Mirza, the only one who went limp when taken into custody, was also charged with resisting arrest.

Yesterday, the five anti-sweatshop activists had their day in court in Chapel Hill. The charges, all misdemeanors, were heard in Orange County District Court right across from campus on Franklin Street, the main student shopping strip and the place where UNC fans celebrate major basketball victories. District Court normally deals with mundane matters such as traffic violations, so it caused a stir when the five defendants, all wearing blue t-shirts emblazoned with the slogan “Justice for All Workers,” showed up with their pro bono legal team—led by veteran civil rights lawyer Al McSurely—and supporters who filled the gallery.

The defendants’ plea of not guilty was followed by a three-hour trial presided over by Judge Pat Devine without a jury. The prosecution’s case consisted of the testimony of four police officers and a video of the arrests. As his first defense witness, McSurely called on Mirza, who started to give a detailed description of the sweatshop problem and the campaign to get universities to sign on to the DSP (around 45 have done so). When the prosecution objected, Judge Devine refused to rule the background testimony irrelevant but said that no more than five minutes could be devoted to it. In doing so, the judge made it clear she was taking it for granted that the students were justified in arguing that supplier factories were abusive and that the UNC administration was complicit. The administration, though not a party to the case and not represented at the trial, was in effect being found guilty of enabling worker exploitation.

McSurely’s other objective was to have the charges against the five students dismissed. He sought to do this in several ways: he argued that the exact charge of “failure to disperse” was inappropriate in the circumstances; he elicited testimony from the students that they had never heard a final warning that they would be subject to arrest if they did not leave the chancellor’s office; he had Linda Gomaa, the first to be arrested, testify that she was taken into custody before any kind of warning was given; and he argued that Mirza’s behavior did not constitute resisting arrest.

McSurely also presented a necessity defense, arguing that even if the students technically broke the law, they should be found not guilty because their actions were in pursuit of a higher good. This was buttressed, for example, by the testimony of defendant Tim Stallmann that the university had previously improved the working conditions of the campus housekeeping staff after students staged protests and engaged in civil disobedience.

Judge Devine did not accept any of those arguments. She concluded that the defendants knew they were crossing a line when they moved the sit-in to the the chancellor’s office; that the police adequately warned the students they would be arrested if they didn’t leave the premises; and that Mirza’s behavior constituted resisting arrest. She also rejected the necessity defense, agreeing with the prosecutor that there was insufficient “nexus” between the actions of the students and the ending of worker exploitation.

The judge, however, made it clear she had enormous respect for the five students, each of whom had been called by McSurely to testify about their commitment to social and economic justice. Sarah Hirsch, for example, described her work with Witness for Peace, and Thomas mentioned that he had just completed a ten-week program with a non-profit called Bike and Build, during which he and others cycled across the country and worked on Habit for Humanity-type housing projects along the way.

After the prosecutor indicated the state was not seeking harsh penalties, Judge Devine in effect imposed no sentences at all. Instead, she entered  a “prayer for judgment continued,” a procedure—unique to North and South Carolina, it seems—in which there is a finding of guilt but no formal conviction is entered on the defendant’s record.

All parties got what they wanted. The prosecutor got a finding of guilt, the police were vindicated in their actions, and the students got an opportunity to highlight the sweatshop issue in court and ended up with the mildest possible adverse ruling. The only real loser was the UNC administration, whose intransigence on the DSP issue emerged from the trial looking even more unreasonable.

Toxic Exports — from the USA

Thursday, August 14th, 2008

While catching up on my magazine reading, I came across an interesting piece by Russell Carollo in the May-June issue of The IRE Journal, which is published by Investigative Reporters and Editors. IRE, by the way, is a great organization for researchers (as well as journalists) to join to get print and online access to the Journal and other valuable data resources.

Carollo, a special projects reporter at the Sacramento Bee, offers a unique perspective amid a package of articles put together by IRE on toxic imports from countries such as China. Reacting to the self-righteous statements of the federal government’s Consumer Products Safety Commission about its commitment to consumer protection, Carollo points out that for many years the CPSC has allowed many U.S. manufacturers to export products deemed too hazardous to sell in their home market.

It turns out the CPSC has a database of “non-approved products” that companies have sought permission to sell abroad. Using the Freedom of Information Act, Carollo obtained a copy of the database. It shows, he writes, that in the period from October 1993 to September 2006, the CPSC received 1,031 requests to export products banned in the USA. The Commission approved 96 percent of those requests.

Some of the small number of rejected requests involved proposed exports to Canada and Mexico, which the CPSC apparently worried might make their way back into the United States. Carollo mentions the case of Indianapolis-based Great Lakes Products, which in 2005 sought approval to export room odorants containing isobutyl nitrite — a substance used in inhalers known as “poppers” to enhance sexual arousal before being banned in the U.S. in 1988 — to Canada and the Czech Republic. The CPSC blocked the sale to Canada but allowed the shipment to the Czechs.

Apparently, the commercial interests of domestic companies trumped the health and safety of foreign consumers. Congress finally took action to end this state of affairs. It recently passed legislation that would bar the CPSC from allowing the export of the most hazardous products. The bill is awaiting the signature of President Bush. [UPDATE: Bush has signed the measure, which is part of a larger bill on consumer product safety.]

Note: The CPSC database does not appear to be available online, but Carollo’s original Bee article with more details about it can be found here. Speaking of product safety, a good source for tracking goods that have been withdrawn from sale in the U.S. is the federal government’s Recalls.gov site.

Taking the Sweat Out of University Logo Apparel

Monday, April 21st, 2008

If you will excuse a bit of parental pride, I would like to report that my son Thomas, a sophomore at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, has been involved in a protest aimed at getting UNC to participate in a program that protects the rights of workers who sew university logo apparel. On Friday, students held a demonstration on campus, while a smaller group is in the fifth day of a sit-in at the building containing the office of Chancellor James Moeser, the target of the pressure campaign. Carolina Blue clothing is among the most popular “brands” of university apparel.

The UNC actions are part of the latest wave of recent campus actions in support of the Designated Supplier Program (DSP), an initiative of the Worker Rights Consortium and United Students Against Sweatshops. Recent actions have taken place at schools such as Penn State University, the University of Montana, Appalachian State University and the University of Houston. While all the protests have been non-violent, more than 30 students were arrested last week at Penn State.

The DSP, launched in 2005, is an attempt to fight sweatshop conditions by getting universities to demand that licensee companies distributing their logo apparel make use of supplier factories that have been independently verified to pay a living wage and respect the right of workers to organize. Currently, more than 30 schools have signed on to DSP (including the entire University of California system), while officials at other institutions have resisted.

Apparel companies such as Nike, Champion (owned by Hanesbrands) and Russell Athletic (owned by Berkshire Hathaway) are among the big players in the $3 billion university logo market. Nike, the target of intensive protests during the 1990s over its use of sweatshop suppliers, has cleaned up its act, though the company itself has acknowledged that its suppliers do not always comply with its standards. Since monitoring its large number of plants—located in 36 countries—is impossible, the alternative is to direct business to a smaller group of factories known to treat their workers decently—hence, DSP. That way, students can ensure that the sweat in university apparel comes from wearers, not producers.

Note: The Worker Rights Consortium has an online database of factories around the world that produce university logo apparel.