Alleged sweatshop linked to OSU goods

The Columbus Dispatch |  By Marla Matzer Rose | October, 15 2011 |  Share  | Source Article


Ohio State University and a division of the Dallas Cowboys, a potential partner in apparel licensing for OSU, find themselves the target this week of new allegations of allowing sweatshop labor to be used to produce logo apparel.

The allegations come from a longtime labor-rights organizer who counts Kathie Lee Gifford and Sean Combs among the celebrities he's shamed into halting the use of overseas sweatshops to make clothing.

Charles Kernaghan and the group he leads, the Institute for Global Labour and Human Rights, issued a report this week saying workers in a factory in El Salvador have been laboring in sweatshop conditions to make licensed goods for the Cowboys, OSU and many other professional and college teams.

The report alleges, among other things, that workers are locked in the factory, where temperatures often exceed 100 degrees, and are paid only 78 cents an hour.

OSU officials said they were not aware of the matter until this week and vowed to investigate.

OSU licensing director Rick Van Brimmer said the university learned of the allegations only through a news release and "immediately sought the advice and counsel" of the Fair Labor Association and the Worker Rights Consortium. The university is a member of those anti-sweatshop monitoring groups and relies on them to help "investigate and mediate issues" such as this one. He said OSU also contacted its licensees that are identified as having produced apparel at the factory.

Kernaghan's group is keeping the heat on OSU, which has been considering a plan to consolidate apparel licensing with the Cowboys or another vendor. His group supports United Students Against Sweatshops, which has been lobbying OSU for months to drop negotiations with the Cowboys.

The Cowboys flatly deny any involvement with the factory in El Salvador, called Style Avenue.

"These allegations are completely erroneous and have no basis in fact," said Bill Priakos of Silver Star Merchandising, the Cowboys' licensing arm. "We do not, and have never, utilized the Style Avenue factory in El Salvador for the production of any Dallas Cowboys or Silver Star merchandise. We take corporate responsibility very seriously at Silver Star, and having certain third parties continuously make false accusations is very troubling."

Kernaghan insists he has irrefutable proof and says illegal subcontracts in such countries "are the norm." Photos of Dallas Cowboys merchandise, along with goods for OSU and other outlets, are included in his report. He said workers reported making the goods, which were then purchased in U.S. outlets and shown to the workers to verify their origin.

"We've never had to withdraw a single case in 25 years," Kernaghan said.

His group is based in Pittsburgh and shares office space with the United Steelworkers union there. It's run mostly by volunteers, he said, and is funded by a number of small foundations and labor groups.

For years, it was a favorite cause of the late Anita Roddick, the founder of socially conscious beauty products firm the Body Shop.

Even those groups that Kernaghan says don't do enough to stop labor abuses give him credit for breaking some big stories and highlighting the issue.

Jorge Perez-Lopez, executive director of the Fair Labor Association, acknowledges that sweatshops remain a problem.

"We think we're making a difference, but our members are only a small part of the industry. It's very complex," Perez-Lopez said. "Problems do arise. When they do, we try to address them."

The Fair Labor Association, founded in 1999 and made up of apparel makers, licensees and organizations such as OSU that license goods, conducts about 150 unannounced audits per year, in addition to responding to complaints as they arise.

The Worker Rights Consortium, founded in 2000, is more academic in focus, with no companies allowed on its board. It does not conduct regular audits but monitors and responds to complaints. Its spokesman, Ira Arlook, also does volunteer work for the United Students Against Sweatshops.

OSU has been a member of the Fair Labor Association and the Worker Rights Consortium since their inception and has its own code of conduct that all licensees agree to, addressing issues such as wages, hours and restrictions on child labor. Van Brimmer said the code was developed in 1999 in conjunction with university officials and student sweatshop group.

Van Brimmer says the decision about apparel licensing is taking longer than originally expected. It's likely that a number of current licenses will be extended past their June 2012 expiration date, he said, to allow more time to reach a decision.


Campaign: Style Avenue/El Salvador-NFL, NCAA & Walmart Caught in Sweatshop Scandal