Students on crusade against sweatshops

By Peter Wright

This week Macalester student organization leaders will receive a letter spotlighting an often overlooked Macalester College Student Government policy aimed at supporting clothing companies that do not manufacture clothing in sweatshops. The letter is one step in a larger movement to ensure Macalester does not fund any companies engaging in sweatshop labor.The problem with Article XV Section 1 Criteria 7 of the MCSG constitution is that it’s too hard to find, Legislative Body representative Andrew Mirzayi ’10 said. Mirzayi said that the letter he has prepared lists brands that don’t use sweatshop labor and reminds student org leaders of the college’s anti-sweatshop policy.

“I thought it would be good to just remind orgs,” Mirzayi said.

The MCSG constitution officially states that organizations should contribute to companies “that provide safe, meaningful working conditions and the means to live within ecological constraints.”

Although the phrasing of the policy leaves room for other social and environmental issues in purchasing decisions, Mirzayi said that he focused on sweatshops because they are an important issue right now.

As for the cost of purchasing from socially-conscious companies, Mirzayi said that it may be slightly more expensive for the organizations than what they might find bargain hunting, but he feels that MCSG is willing to cover the extra cost, which he emphasized is fairly small, when it sets organization budgets.

“I think it makes a big impact. You’re seeing a big difference in these companies,” Mirzayi said.

In addition to Mirzayi’s efforts to keep sweatshop clothing out of Macalester student organizations, Thom Boik ’09, leader of the Minnesota Public Interest Research Group at Macalester, said that his organization is starting an effort to ensure that Macalester doesn’t purchase apparel made in sweatshops for any purpose.

Boik said that Macalester is currently a member of the Worker Rights Consortium, an organization that independently inspects factories for labor conditions and then creates a code of conduct with each member school stating that they will not purchase from companies listed as using factories that use sweatshop labor. Macalester joined in 2000 after a student-led campaign supporting the move.

“Unfortunately, in practice it’s been a bit disappointing,” Boik said.

The WRC has problems when it comes to enforcement and inspections because it is trying to cover a large number of factories with a very small staff, Boik said. The latest data available from the WRC about Macalester’s purchasing habits is six years old.

MPIRG, along with Macalester’s Social Responsibility Committee, is encouraging Macalester to join a new branch of the WRC called the Designated Suppliers Program. That project has the potential to be more successful at enforcing a code of conduct, Boik said, because it would encourage colleges to purchase in large quantities from a few companies that have good labor practices, increasing the leverage colleges have over the clothing market.

Boik said that he feels there is plenty of support for an organization like the DSP at Macalester, particularly since the college has already taken similar steps, like joining the WRC.

“We know that the school supports this,” Boik said.

He said that he and the other organizers are in the process of trying to schedule a meeting with President Brian Rosenberg, who is the final authority on whether or not Macalester will join the DSP. If President Rosenberg allows the college to join the program, Boik said his next goal would be to raise awareness around campus about the new agreement.

“My concern is that I really want . to get the message out to the student body that this has happened,” Boik said.

Meanwhile, Mirzayi said that he hopes his letter to the student organizations will raise the level of awareness surrounding sweatshops in general.

“We should be more aware of our purchasing and where it’s coming from,” Mirzayi said.