Letter to the Editor: Not Quite a Global University Yet — Virginia Tech Complicit in Nike’s Labor Violations

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In her Letter to the Editor and accompanying video, Anu Sharma of the United Students Against Sweatshops argues that Virginia Tech is complicit in Nike’s labor violations.

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You might have been keeping up with the efforts of United Students Against Sweatshops, Local 124 at Virginia Tech. Maybe you’ve heard a word or two about Nike or worker rights in the past few months. And if you’re on board with what’s happening re: Virginia Tech’s new “visionary” agenda as a “global land-grant university,” you probably already know about Beyond Boundaries. Well, here’s the deal: hate to break it to you folks, but it seems like whatever the VT administration is preaching in this model of “creating new partnerships” internationally certainly hasn’t been practiced so far. And I’m talking about even when it comes to ensuring the most basic standards for human rights.

Let’s review what’s been going on with USAS-VT, and why students are so frustrated at the administration’s hesitance to own up to their responsibility by directly confronting Nike and putting the brand on notice. “Why go this far?” some of you might ask, “why do we need to hurt our business partnership with Nike?” The fact of the matter is that beginning last fall, Nike has violated our school’s Licensee Code of Conduct under a legally-binding contract with Virginia Tech, as well as the Collegiate Licensing Company (CLC), in two ways: (1) Refusing to allow the Worker Rights Consortium (WRC) to independently investigate the factories Nike produces in, and (2) no longer disclosing factory locations of university-specific collegiate apparel.

The Worker Rights Consortium is the only independent labor rights monitoring system in the world, and it plays a huge role in providing detailed, third party reports to universities like Virginia Tech. It basically comes down to this: if Nike no longer lets the WRC into its factories, there would be no way to find out any underlying workplace rights that may be violated for Nike garment workers. (And considering the long history of Nike’s production in sweatshops, we definitely cannot trust it to monitor its own factories.) If Virginia Tech pays the WRC to produce these reports for every company we do business with, Nike should not be an exception.

In fact, it says right in the Licensee Code of Conduct through the CLC that if a brand fails to follow through these crucial guidelines regarding WRC access and disclosure of factory location, Virginia Tech is obliged to put it on notice until it remediates its violations. So why has the administration put this issue on the back of their minds? Why is Virginia Tech infringing on its own Code of Conduct by not putting Nike on notice already? Why have a Code of Conduct in the first place, if Virginia Tech can give irresponsible brands like Nike a free pass?

Why must members of United Students Against Sweatshops continually exhaust themselves to ensure the responsibility of both corporations AND universities?

United Students Against Sweatshops. Source: Anu Sharma.

President Sands and his administration have known about these violations for over five months, ever since the WRC sent out an open letter to universities in late October 2015. Only now – after USAS-VT’s letter deliveries, meetings, and an effective Week of Action to grab their attention – have they begun to look through and confirm the information. This is absolutely unacceptable. Nike should have been put on notice months ago. Clearly, even legally-binding terms & conditions are not enough for the administration to make garment worker rights a top issue (as they continue, ironically, to develop Virginia Tech’s mission to be a global university… again, see Beyond Boundaries).

This emerging “global university” cannot be defined by flowery language like “human-centered” or “empowering opportunities” without being placed into meaningful and concrete action. A global university must incorporate international business ethics AND understand how globalization can be destructive to locals across the Global South, which are driven by Virginia Tech’s very own business partners like Nike. None of this is controversial. All USAS-VT has done is hold Virginia Tech accountable to its administrative duty of keeping Nike in check, under mandatory and binding terms, just like it does with every other licensee. The more administrators wait around to “look over” and confirm the information, instead of just doing what they are already supposed to be doing (immediately place Nike on notice), the longer we are left without transparent reports on working conditions for those who produce Hokie apparel under Nike.

On March 16, USAS-VT brought Noi Supalai, an ex- Nike garment worker from Thailand, to speak at our school. She shared her story of how Nike had deserted her co-workers in a time of utmost need. Noi and her workers were unjustly detained after they spoke up about being denied owed wages (which Nike had refused to pay to the factory), and only through the WRC were they let out and given back their wages. This would have been the perfect opportunity for President Sands to get a first-hand account on Nike worker exploitation and the importance of the WRC – however, not a single administrator was in sight.

“How can you say the university values inclusion, when you’re not there to listen to Noi and voices like hers?” exclaimed Sarah Shinton, a sophomore at Virginia Tech, when USAS-VT confronted President Sands on Monday, April 4th at a public Town Hall meeting on campus. “When you’re not listening to those like Noi, [the horrific conditions under Nike] are the kinds of things you are sidestepping, and thus excusing.”

Do we want to jeopardize Virginia Tech’s reputation as an increasingly “inclusive,” internationally-partnered university, knowing there’s a very good chance that without independent WRC access and full location disclosure, our Nike-sponsored apparel is being produced under sweatshop conditions? Do we really want the Hokie community to stay complicit in worker abuse? I don’t think so.

It’s well-past the time for President Sands and his administration to #JustDoTheRightThing and, in accordance to Virginia Tech’s legally-binding contractual agreements, put Nike on hold until it can reverse its reprehensible decisions. No longer can we as a community stay silent on an issue that is so directly in our hands. When workers’ rights are under attack, whether this occurs within OR outside of the university, what do we do? We unite, we fight back, and make corporations like Nike responsible to fundamental anti-sweatshop monitoring standards.

 

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