Final Report: UH Apparel Task Force

July 7, 2008

The purpose of the UH Apparel Task Force is to review issues with respect to the manufacture of apparel sold on campus, or otherwise bearing the University logo. Our objective was to ascertain the current state of UH actions, and to determine the best path for the university.  We interacted with many parts of the University, and investigated the three national organizations that address worldwide working conditions for university apparel workers.  The Task Force members met at least three times as a whole, members conducted individual research and academic evaluations outside of our formal meetings, and we met with representatives of Barnes and Noble. Two of our Task Force members have had the opportunity to visit factories in China and India recently, and were able to see and report firsthand on labor conditions there. We also held an open meeting where UH Students Against Sweatshops made a presentation. We engaged in frank and open discussions concerning these issues, and invited input from the university community.

Based on the information gathered and extensive discussion, the Task Force finds that, overall, the University of Houston is taking reasonable steps to ensure workers’ rights.  With respect to the on-campus sale of apparel, the Task Force concluded that the primary seller, Barnes and Noble Bookstore, has taken reasonable steps to ensure that it is not selling apparel produced by sweatshop labor.

The fight against what is generally termed “sweatshop” practices is viewed by most as an admirable goal, and we find that faculty, staff, students and administrators share the worldwide concern that workers should be paid a fair wage and treated with dignity and respect. Unfortunately, achieving this goal or even agreeing on how success should be measured is difficult, with little consensus on how to best proceed.  One problem is that the global economy is flexible, and one issue (like labor in the apparel industry) cannot be addressed in isolation. Workers and firms have choices, and constrained choice causes myriad unforeseen consequences. Thus, it is difficult to address labor concerns in a single industry, and it is even more difficult to ascertain whether interventions ultimately have a positive or negative effect on the workers. Further, we recognize that monitoring working conditions throughout the world is extremely difficult, and there does not currently appear to be any way to absolutely ensure that apparel is manufactured under acceptable conditions.

The Task Force also reviewed several organizations directly involved with the elimination of sweatshop conditions around the world, specifically the Fair Labor Association (FLA), the Workers Rights Consortium (WRC), and the Designated Suppliers Program (DSP).  The Task Force agreed with a report of the UH Students Against Sweatshops that there likely will be little impact from joining WRC or the DSP. The DSP is in its infancy and not yet active. A majority of the Task Force recommended that there is an advantage to public support of the objectives and goals of the WRC, and membership in that organization appears to be a prudent thing to do. 

In summary, the Task Force found no direct evidence that showed the University to be knowingly, or even unintentionally, engaged in the sale or licensing of trademarked products manufactured under sweatshop conditions. The Task Force does not believe that the University is engaging, authorizing or encouraging any conduct that would violate any accepted code of manufacturing conduct. The Task Force believes, however, that additional steps still may be undertaken to publicly recognize the University’s institutional commitment to fair labor practices, and to emphasize that the University will not knowingly tolerate manufacturers who operate or benefit from the operation of sweatshops. 

The Task Force therefore recommends that the University:

  1. Join the Worker Rights Consortium to affirm the university’s commitment to workers’ rights;
  2. Join the Fair Labor Association and adopt its Workplace Code of Conduct.
  3. Communicate to all apparel suppliers that UH expects them to follow the Workplace Code of Conduct protecting workers’ rights.
  4. It is not recommended that any action be taken with respect to the Designated Suppliers’ Program until it is more established and a determination may be made regarding its effectiveness and legality.
  5. Respectfully submitted,

Steven G. Craig, Chair                         
Professor, Department of Economics               

And Committee Members:
Prof. Richard M. Alderman, Dwight Olds Chair of Law and Director of the Consumer Law Center
Prof. Jim Granato, Political Science and Director of the Center for Public Policy
Prof. Saleha Khumawala, Dept. of Accounting, Bauer College of Business
Prof. Harrell Rodgers Jr., Chair of UH Department of Political Science
Mr. Keith Kowalka, president of the University Staff Council
Mr. Stephan Quezada, speaker, Student Government Association

President Khator’s response to the Final Report is available online.