united students against sweatshops

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

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Who is USAS?

USAS - United Students Against Sweatshops - is an international student movement of campuses and individual students fighting for sweatshop free labor conditions and workers' rights. We believe that university standards should be brought inline with those of its students, who demand that their school's logo is emblazoned on clothing made in decent working conditions.

We have fought for these beliefs by demanding that our universities adopt ethically and legally strong codes of conduct, full public disclosure of company information and truly independent verification systems to ensure that sweatshop conditions are not happening. Ultimately, we are using our power as students to affect the larger industry that thrives on sweatshops.

How many chapters are there?

Since late 1998, USAS has grown to a coalition of over 180 student groups (chapters) on as many campuses throughout the US and Canada. There have been six sit-ins on the campuses of University of Arizona, Duke University, University of Michigan, University of Wisconsin - Madison, Georgetown and University of North Carolina - Chapel Hill. All six were deemed quite successful at achieving their goals. USAS has been to the White House, had two national conferences and a national rally outside the steps of the Department of Labor. Nike is so wary of our activities, they are putting up web sites. We have had many victories and plan to have many more.

How is USAS structured?

Throughout this time, USAS has developed a democratic structure to keep it organized and productive. Our governance structure primarily consists of a coordinating committee, a multitude of standing committees with a specific responsibility (e.g. finance, web), ad hoc working groups and an advisory board that provides consultation from the outside labor, anti-sweatshop movement. All decisions made by the general body must have a 3/4 majority of those present, and will be voted on over conference calls or national gatherings.

Whats wrong with sweatshops?

The problem is sweatshops - factories that exploit people with wages that leave families hungry, bust unions, have unsafe working conditions, and show a brazen disregard for human rights and dignity.

And unfortunately this is a systemic problem that requires more than a few "busts", but rather the reform of an industry. Sweatshop Watch has some discussion of how the garment industry works.

What are the conditions of sweatshops like in the United States?

Even in this country, sweatshop labor pervades the apparel industry. As a recent New York Times op-ed piece (27 Mar. 1999) pointed out: "In fact, the state Labor Department has estimated that there are 2,500 illegal sweatshops operating within New York City alone. Only 37 percent of the shops employing New York's 90,000 garment workers meet Federal requirements on wages and hours, a Federal Labor Department official told me, and the rate of compliance is comparably poor in other major cities."

But these are mere statistics. The reality is sometimes much worse. A few years ago 63 Thai immigrants were found locked in a complex surrounded by barbed wire in which they worked 84 hours a week (Los Angeles Times, 4 Aug. 1995). This slave labor took place in El Monte, California, USA.

What are the conditions of sweatshops like elsewhere?

But the garment industry has largely moved overseas to avoid what laws and wage levels the U.S. does manage to enforce. And throughout Central America, the Carribean, and South-East Asia, the picture is very grim.

A particularly pertinent report on conditions is that UNITE - the garment workers union of the AFL-CIO did on a factory in the Dominican Republic that makes University of Michigan baseball caps. What they found was forced overtime, sex-discrimination in wages, unsafe working conditions, very low wages, and union busting.

Also interesting is the National Labor Committee report on a Nike factory in El Salvador, alongside its recent exposes of just what a Nike code of conduct means on the ground.

And not long ago a group of students accompanied the National Labor Committee and produced their own report on labor conditions in the region.

Why are we concerned about women's rights?

As 90% of garment factory workers are women, a crucial area of concern is women's rights, and the news is unsurprising bad. The UNITE report above demonstrates sex-discrimination in wages, and the National Labor Committee has uncovered pregnancy tests and even the injection of ill-informed women with contraceptives. The enforcement of the rights of women is essential to reforming the garment industry. For some people working from this perspective see Feminists Against Sweatshops.

Who is the Fair Labor Association?

Lately many industry players have been pushing the Fair Labor Association (FLA) as a "solution" to the problem of sweatshops, but it is a weak code that fails to provide for women's rights, a living wage, the full public disclosure of factory locations, or university control over the monitoring process. It is more corporate cover up than industry reform. For these reasons and others the United Students Against Sweatshops and SOLE have opposed universities joining the FLA.

Corporate Watch has a broad discussion of sweatshop history, conditions, and solutions that criticizes the AIP/FLA -- "Blood, Sweat & Shears".

For links to a variety of commentaries on and other information about the Fair Labor Association (FLA) code of conduct and monitoring system see the page compiled by Columbia Students Against Sweatshops.

Who is the Workers Right Consortium?

The Worker Rights Consortium (WRC) has been developed by the United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS) in consultation with workers and human rights groups. It consists of a system to verify and inspect conditions in factories producing apparel for colleges and universities. Members of USAS believe that the WRC will force information regarding industry practices out into the light of day and pressure firms to improve conditions in factories producing their goods.


It is consistent with the mission of universities and colleges to establish a system of licensee verification that maximizes the respect of human rights and accountability to their constituents. Under the WRC, it is the responsibility of licensees to ensure their compliance with the Code of Conduct. By joining the WRC, universities and colleges commit to the implementation of broad public disclosure and a mechanism to verify information received through disclosure and worker complaints. Given the incredible scope of the apparel industry, the WRC does not provide for the certification of factories or companies. Rather, the WRC seeks to open up conditions in the apparel industry to public scrutiny and respond to the needs of the workers sewing licensed products for institutions of higher education.

Core Components

Information Forcing - Companies contracting with member institutions will disclose information about wages, working hours, health and safety conditions, local citations, etc. Objective measures of conditions (e.g., wage rates, personnel policies) will be made publicly available. Special measure will be taken to make the information available to worker-allied groups in producing regions. Misreporting of information will be considered a serious contract violation.

Verification System - Participants will set up the WRC Agency, operating independently of industry representatives and university licensing offices. The Agency will receive and verify worker complaints of abuses and violations of the WRC Code of Conduct. It also will work with worker-allied groups in sourcing areas to establish the system to receive complaints and to verify them.

Pro-active Investigations - In areas where workers are severely restricted from exercising their rights and for licensees with a history of violations, the WRC Agency will coordinate pro-active investigations with local, independent non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and human rights groups with experience in the region.

Code Of Conduct

The verification and pro-active investigations of the Agency will evaluate compliance with the WRC Code of Conduct. USAS considers these standards to be the only appropriate "floor" consistent with basic human rights. These standards include the respect of women's rights and a living wage. Furthermore, licensees will not be able to site repressive political climates as an excuse not to comply with the Code (See IV.D - Labor Standards Environment).


An Advisory Council composed of human and labor rights experts from the US, Canada and international producing regions is in the process of forming. Once several universities and colleges commit to the WRC, a Governing Board will be established with representation from the Advisory Council, University administrators and students.

Is this a boycott?

No, we are not asking that you boycott anyone. That’s a decision that you should make for yourself. Our objective is to stop our school from purchasing garments or putting its name on apparel that was made in sweatshops. Instead of calling for individuals to boycott these irresponsible companies, we are asking all students to act collectively to bring pressure on our school administrators to adopt a code of conduct and a policy of full, public disclosure which will have a much greater effect on improving conditions. Higher education facilities are major consumers of apparel; if this campaign is successful we will collectively have a huge impact on the manufacturers since collegiate licensing is a billion dollar industry.

Are we asking companies to move their production back to the US?

NO! We believe that workers in developing countries deserve jobs that will actually contribute to development, not create a cycle of impoverishment and abuse, as sweatshop jobs do. So, we are asking US companies that produce in other nations to help improve working conditions in their factories, not move production.

What companies should I avoid?

Central to this campaign is the idea that there are unfortunately no purely good or bad companies. The entire industry is structured around finding the cheapest sources of labor without regard for workers’ rights or dignity. While some companies are certainly more aware and responsive to workers’ issues than others, it is difficult to say do or don’t buy specific brands.

What difference can our schools make?

Our schools can make a great deal of difference. Individually, universities buy a tremendous amount of apparel, most of which is made under exploitative conditions. Students at over 100 universities across the continent are trying to force their schools to take responsibility for the conditions under which the clothes bearing our logos are produced. One institution acting alone to fight sweatshops is a formidable adversary to those who make huge profits by exploiting their workers, but many universities organizing collaboratively can really shake up these greedy manufacturers.

How do you enforce a Code of Conduct?

First and foremost, full, public disclosure of factory names and addresses will shed light on a system that has been so hidden for so long, and this will enable independent human rights groups, NGOs and unions to find out if codes of conduct are being enforced. Further, a system of independent monitoring of factories to ensure compliance with codes of conducts has been developed by NGO’s, students, and unions in the US with the input of grassroots activists in the developing world. This system, called the Verification Model is the best plan for making sure that our codes are enforced in a way that is inclusive of the voices of workers and their advocates.

About Living Wage

What is a living wage?

Also essential is a living wage for workers. A living wage is a wage that meets a worker's basic human needs. The National Labor Committee has compiled a list of actual wages around the world and of what living wages would be. A methodology for determining living wages was arrived at during a Living Wage Working Summit at Berkeley.

There have been some claims that living wages will result in unemployment and a worsening of workers' lives. These concerns have proven more hypothetical than worrisome. David Tannenbaum of Princeton has written a good article for Business Today addressing some of the economic myths surrounding reform of the garment industry.

Won’t living wages just hurt workers by making companies move their factories?

Capital mobility is a critical concern for workers and activists, but fortunately, there are many factors that mitigate against the realization of such moves. First, a company’s decision to invest in a given country is based on a variety of issues–including the legal environment, human capital, transportation infrastructure, and real exchange rate–thus, the decision to leave will not hinge on the cost of labor alone.

Well, then, according to the laws of free market economics, living wages artificially raise the "price" of labor above its market rate. Won’t that accelerate unemployment and inflation?

Critics of minimum wage laws and living wage ordinances argue that raising people’s wages without an increase in their productivity will cause employers to reduce their demand for labor because of the higher cost, thus causing higher unemployment. However, many labor economists have argued and evidence from the experience of U.S. city ordinances indicates that this simply doesn’t happen in reality. The experience of cities like Detroit that have adopted living wage ordinances shows that it actually improves efficiency and competition, reduces turnover and absenteeism, and increases worker morale. In addition, the apparel industry is such a wildly profitable industry, that it is likely that manufacturers would sooner take a cut in profit that reduce their workforce and hence their production.

With regard to inflation, economists, researchers, and government officials agree that higher maquila wages would not cause generalized inflation, since such a relatively small proportion of the population is employed by this sector.

Will living wages make the price of garments go up for consumers?

In research that has been done, we have calculated that the total labor cost for the sewing of a $15 college t-shirt was less than 3 cents, or less than 0.2% of the total cost of the t-shirt. In general, almost 75% of the ticket price for a garment made in a sweatshop is devoted purely to profit for the manufacturer and retailer. A company will not be forced out of business if it raises wages, but it will be forced to take a marginal cut in profit. Some companies are so adamantly opposed to any reduction in their profit that they will move a plant to another country to keep labor costs low. Paying workers a living wage will not bankrupt the massive manufacturers currently paying pitifully low wages with no benefits of any kind. Research has consistently proven that an unexploited worker is a better worker. People are most efficient when they aren’t tired, hungry, and scared. Paying workers a living wage can only increase their productivity. Paying fair wages has the added bonus of allowing workers to become consumers, contributing to the health of the economy as well.

Why do workers need such a high wage? Isn’t the cost of living much cheaper overseas?

A living wage is calculated based on a cost of living estimate of the specific region where workers live. Although basic goods do often cost less in developing countries, the fact is that foreign sweatshop workers do not earn enough money to support themselves and their families. Countries frequently set a very low minimum wage to attract companies and bring jobs to their struggling economies. We want these companies to pay their workers a living wage, not just an artificially low minimum wage. A living wage enables workers to meet their basic needs for food, shelter, clothing and medical care and to set aside money for future purchases.

How do you calculate a living wage?

A living wage is based off of an analysis of the cost of the basic needs of a family, taking into account the average family size of a particular region, and a percentage of income to save for long-term planning and emergencies. The following categories are often included in a formula for basic needs: nutrition (food), housing, education, childcare, health care, clothing, energy, water, and transportation. Other categories — including entertainment, vacation, paid family leave, retirement, life insurance and personal liability insurance — are considered by some to be important factors for any living wage formula. It is important to note that

Don’t governments base their minimum wage laws on the basis of the poverty line? Shouldn’t we focus more on governments enforcing their own minimum wage laws?

Many governments base their minimum wage laws on something called the "Basic Basket of Goods," which includes only the most basic food items and cooking costs. That means that the minimum wages of many countries are far beneath the amount of money actually necessary to survive. It does not account for essential factors like the cost of housing, transportation, education, childcare, health care, clothing, energy, and water. Thus, enforcing minimum wage laws does nothing more than enforce poverty wages that offer no hope for advancement or development.

also see the Report on the Living Wage Symposium held at University of Wisconsin - Madison

About Disclosure

How will disclosure help fight sweatshops?

The garment industry has remained as corrupt as it is because it has created an elaborate system of secrecy. A garment will probably go through at least three different shops before it is labeled. This means that it is virtually impossible for a garment you guy to be successfully traced through all stages of production. The elimination of this secrecy can only be accomplished if companies are forced to disclose where their shops are. The location of their shops is vital but not the only information requested as part of a disclosure policy. Such a report would need to include where and to whom all work was contracted and sub-contracted to, and under what conditions the work was done. This will include what wages the workers were paid, what benefits (including overtime, etc) they receive.

What does disclosure need to cover?

At a minimum, the manufacturer/licensee should supply the University with a full list of all its production sites, whether they be factories owned by the company, or factories with which they have a contracting relationship. We need to know where university garments are cut, sewn, laundered, embroidered, embossed, finished, packaged, and distributed.

How can I respond to administrators and company representatives who say that factory names and addresses are "trade secrets" and that disclosing factory names and locations will make them lose their competitive advantage?

It is well known that companies that compete with one another in the consumer market often produce their goods in the very same factories. That is to say that Nike and Reebok already know where the other is producing because they are often producing in the same places. Further, these companies are producing t-shirts, not smart bombs. Arguments about trade secrets are simply not credible in light of the fact that products that we are talking about. T-shirt and sweatshirt design is neither extremely complicated nor sensitive information.

In legal terms, it is clear that claims of companies that factory names and locations are "trade secrets" is bogus. Lawyers have said that for location to be considered a legitimate trade secret, the company would have to treat it as such in all business dealings. Thus, employees would be contractually bound not to reveal it; merchants, transporters and suppliers would have to be sworn to secrecy; etc. In addition, it is clear that the US government does not regard factory location as a trade secret since the US Department of Labor publishes a list of contractors and manufacturers (including names and addresses) that have violated the Fair Labor Standards Act, and links them to the manufacturers for whom they are producing. Thus, it is clear that companies’ argument that they cannot comply with full, public disclosure because it is a trade secret is a smoke screen to hide their abusive and unjust labor conditions.