November 15, 2009 will go down in the history of workers’ rights. Bowing to one of the largest-ever student boycotts, campus clothing giant Fruit of the Loom announced that it wasn’t just going to reopen a factory in Honduras and give all the 1,200 laid-off workers their jobs back – it was also going to pay them $2.5 million in compensation, and restore union rights.
Colleges in the US, Canada and Britain had been persuaded by students to suspend their contracts with Fruit of the Loom and its subsidiary, Russell Athletic. The student protests were in response to news that the company was planning to shut its Jerzees de Honduras factory following union activity. Reyna Dominguez is one of the sewing machine operators from the factory: ‘Without the pressure from the students they [the company] would never have come to the negotiating table. There has never been an agreement like this in Honduras or the world. The feeling is something you really can’t put into words.’
Dominguez, who describes herself as ‘a mother and a father at once’, has got into $370 debt since being laid off, in an attempt to keep her six children fed, clothed and in school. If the compensation from the company is divided equally per worker, she’ll get over $2,000.
The campaign started in 2009, when United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS), an alliance of over 200 US educational institutions, decided to act on reports of poor working conditions and threats to union members in the factory.
The University of Miami was the first to cut its contract. In February the boycott gained momentum when USAS brought the President and Vice-President of the Honduran workers’ union to the US for a speaker tour.
‘After that, the dominoes just started falling,’ says Rod Palmquist, International Campaigns Co-ordinator for USAS. ‘Pretty much everywhere we visited cut their contracts.’
Educational giants joined in the boycott, until a total of 96 US colleges had severed their contracts. When USAS reached out to People & Planet in the UK, 10 British universities followed suit. In Canada, six more universities joined, and big retailers began to follow, including JC Penney and the Sports Authority. The campaign cost the company an estimated $50 million in the US alone.
‘We generated a really big level of consumer awareness,’ says Palmquist. ‘If corporations are transnational and can move anywhere in the world, we should also globalize ourselves and form a transatlantic student alliance.’
Students started taking direct action. In the US, giant cardboard scissors publicly tore up Russell contracts. In Britain, students staged a die-in at the company’s European headquarters in Telford. Banners were dropped outside the Russell headquarters in Edinburgh. USAS activists even pitched up on the doorstep of billionaire Warren Buffett, asking him to intervene in the company, which is a subsidiary of his global conglomerate, Berkshire Hathaway. ‘Unfortunately he wasn’t in,’ says Palmquist with a grin. ‘But maybe next time.’
The most exciting thing about this campaign is the precedent it’s already beginning to set. In 2009, jeans-maker Levi Strauss and Company was going to pull its orders from a unionized factory in Haiti. It was in light of the Russell campaign, Palmquist believes, that they decided to stay. Meanwhile, USAS is planning to use its new-found momentum to create more sustainable change. It is asking all universities to commit to sourcing from companies where union rights are respected. Already Knights Apparel, the second-largest university brand after Nike, has voluntarily agreed to apply these standards to long-suffering factory workers in the Dominican Republic.