Sweat Shop Workers Kick Off National Adidas Divestment Campaign At NYU

Last night, NYU hosted three workers employed by Gildan, a Montreal based textile firm which provides blank apparel to Adidas, from whom NYU buys its clothing. The university’s apparel line, the workers told an audience of students, is made for poverty-level wages from garment factories across Latin America and South East Asia.

“We, as workers, are looking to you, as students, to pressure the brand,” Honduran Raquel Navarro said. Navarro is a union leader at STAR, an organization of Caribbean and Central American workers at the plants of Adidas’ subcontractor Gildan. The union has organized shops in Guatemala, Nicaragua, Honduras, El Salvador, and Haiti.

Adidas operates over twelve hundred factories worldwide, doling its contracts out to the lowest bidder. Having factories employed by the same company compete against one another has been great for business, with the holding company’s website (which also owns Reebok) proclaiming “Adidas Group to achieve record sales and earnings in 2012.”

But the strategy has ruined the livelihood of workers and families in the factories themselves, forcing wages down under threat of unemployment. When workers organize to protect themselves, union members are fired in blatant violation of labor law. In Haiti the labor ministry is dependent on foreign capital for the few jobs they represent, and so does not prosecute violations. The result is a type of informal regulatory competition.

“The people who have sworn to protect us won’t,” said Yannick Etienne, a veteran organizer from Haiti. When workers hint at protecting themselves, she added, “factory owners threaten to leave to Vietnam.” All of the workers criticized the effects of globalization on the lives of their families, lamenting the abusive dependence of their governments on transnational capital.

“They need the jobs, despite being humiliated,” Etienne said to the packed room. “Despite having their dignity taken away.”

Gildan pays workers in Port-au-Prince a daily wage of about $250 Gourdes, about $5.90. “60 Gourdes for transportation, 60 Gourdes for breakfast, 100 Gourdes for lunch,” listed fellow Haitian Telemarque Pierre. Since most of the wage gets spent at work little is left to take home to the workers’ families. Because a staggering three quarters of Haitians do not have formal employment it would seem that there is little the workers can do.

But three years ago Pierre organized a union in Port-au-Prince and has been fighting for improved working conditions since. He explained to the audience how the minimum wage laws are not enforced in the garment factories, a phenomenon not particular to Haiti. “We hope to get your support in our struggle,” Pierre told the audience.

In conjunction with the AFL-CIO, over two dozen Honduran and international unions filed a complaint last March with the US Department of Labor “Concerning the Failure of the Government of Honduras to Effectively Enforce its Labor Laws”.

“In the maquila most girls start between the ages of 14 and 16,” Navarro explained, “and a day past 30 they are considered worn out and fired.” Navarro’s factory in Honduras pays workers $60 a week, which for a conservative 40 hour week comes out to a $1.50 per hour. In Haiti the Montreal based firm Gildan pays its workers 14 cents for every 72 shirts, and gives them to Adidas for 16 cents a shirt–an 860% increase. Of the $18.95 you pay for your NYU t-shirt about two one thousandths of a cent goes to the worker in Haiti.

“The country is dependent on a failed economic model,” Etienne repeated, “we have to find an alternative to this economic model in Haiti.” The invariable poverty of the global market rarely finds expression at NYU, the home of the Global Network University, where the noble callings of art and science follow business to the ends of the earth.

What those humanitarian non-profit posters overlook is why Haitians and Hondurans have remained impoverished despite years of capital investment. They elide the ways–as a consumer, as an investor, and, at times, as an educator–that the university has assiduously cultivated miserable workplaces for the people of these countries.

“This is a global problem, and it has a global solution” Navarro said flatly. “And I like to think that students are part of the solution,” Etienne added.

The conference kicked off a national speaking tour by the garment workers as part of a multi-university campaign to divest from Adidas. This Friday at 2pm the groups that hosted the workers will hold a rally outside Bobst library, at the corner of University and Washington Square South, to pressure the University to end its contract with the firm.

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