By Patrick Szpak
Associate News Editor
The black ITM T-shirt’s tag boasts El Salvador as its birth country. After five years on the Ryerson bookstore’s shelves, it was finally removed.
Either it wasn’t selling, or it went against the bookstore’s code of conduct.
The workers who assembled it are still owed close to a million dollars.
Thursday was the day bookstore staff put out new stock, a process that involves putting out new clothing and sometimes setting aside clothing that may breach the store’s ethical standards.
One of those items was the black T-shirt made by Russell Athletic in the Hermosa factory in El Salvador. Hermosa was closed in 2005 when its workers unionized. Factory owners denied workers the more than $900,000 back pay and benefits they were demanding.
The bookstore code of conduct was adopted in February 2005, after the then student union finance vice-president, Ram Sivapalan, and members of the Students Against Sweatshops campus group pressured the university bookstore to change their policies. The code ensures that the bookstore will not sell clothing made by sweatshop or abused workers, says Kelly Abraham, manager of the Ryerson bookstore.
As a result of creating the code of conduct, the bookstore became affiliated with the Fair Labour Organization (FLA) and the Workers’ Rights Consortium (WRC), both non-governmental organizations that assist in the enforcement of manufacturing codes of conduct adopted by universities.
Abraham says enforcing the code takes up a lot of his time, but he thinks it’s worth it. He refers to a spreadsheet of hundreds of corporations provided by the Fair Labour Organization (FLA) and relies on staff to randomly check-up on corporations that supply the bookstore.
He won’t order from companies that don’t meet the fair labour standards. Russell Athletic, the manufacturer of the aforementioned black T-shirt, is listed in Abraham’s spreadsheet as being a good company with fair labour practices, despite having used the Hermosa plant to make its clothing.
The T-shirt has been on the shelf since 2001, says Abraham, well before the code of conduct was implemented. Short of flying to the factories that are making the clothes, he has to trust the information provided by the FLA.
“Beyond that what can I do?” asks Abraham. “We are trying our level best — no one can fault us for that.”
Nancy Steffan is assistant director of policy and communication at the Workers’ Rights Consortium (WRC). She says codes of conduct like Ryerson’s are difficult to enforce when clothing comes from the developing world.
“Factories where workers’ rights are violated are unfortunately the norm,” Steffan said, adding that clothing manufacturing in Third-World countries is “characterized by sweatshop conditions.”
Steffan said that, like most big clothing labels, Russell Athletic has a “mixed record when it comes to workers’ rights.”
The WRC database of factories shows the Hermosa plant being the only Russell Athletic factory making university apparel prior to 2005 in El Salvador. A Russell Athletic spokeswoman said it is possible the T-shirt came from Hermosa.
Steffan said the problem isn’t with Ryerson’s code of conduct, but with the big labels such as Adidas, Nike and Russel Athletic.
The problem is how these corporations deal with the sub-contracted factories that hire the workers, Steffan said. “They pay too little to the contractor, leaving no money to put into place the benefits and safeguards that protect workers’ rights.”
Both Steffan and Sivapalan are pleased with the Ryerson bookstore’s compliance with the code of conduct. “I’m pleasantly surprised, I thought they wouldn’t take the code seriously,” said Sivapalan.