Occidental’s athletic attire stained by sweatshop labor

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Author: Damien Mendieta

 

Sweatshop-free apparel is one of the most prominently advertised products in the Occidental College Bookstore. The college boasts its commitment to fair labor practices to all who enter the store. But in spite of that pledge, the Athletics Department has proudly worn Adidas merchandise since it signed a three-year contract with the company in 2008, even though Adidas’s history is tarnished by its use of  sweatshop labor. The workers in Adidas’ apparel manufacturing facilities are subject to marginal wages, harsh working conditions and above all, disregard for labor organizing rights. According to Oxfam, Adidas operates factories in countries and free trade zones where forming labor unions is extremely difficult. The fact that Occidental boasts its contract with a major attire corporation known for labor abuse stains the credibility of the college’s commitment to ethical and fair labor practices.

After the Athletics Department signed the 2008 contract, its website read, “Image is everything.” If image is indeed everything, the college will be known largely for a hypocritical approach to the ethics of apparel. While it’s understandable that the college’s athletics department would welcome its first corporate sponsorship, our NCAA Sports programs should have first sought endorsement from companies that do not subject their workers to sweatshop-like conditions. Although image may seem like everything, in fact it is the hard work and dedication behind Occidental athletes’ efforts that draw far more attention than the brand of their attire.

Similarly, the college emphasizes its dedication to its promoting social justice and equity on a continual basis even to prospective students. And yet its decision on the issue of athletic apparel actively spurns an opportunity to turn a corner on sweatshop labor. Just as the bookstore has adopted buying merchandise from Alta Gracia, a smaller fair trade manufacturer that pays living wages to all its workers, so should the Athletics Department. The economics make sense as well: according to Alta Gracia’s website, the costs of purchasing apparel from them is no more than from any other major apparel company. While Adidas’ underpaid workers remain unfairly treated, universities and colleges across the nation, including Occidental, turn a blind eye to those injustices and seek endorsements with well-known companies. By refusing to renew attractive contracts with corporations that practice workforce abuse, Occidental can become a leader in promoting sweat shop-free apparel.

The Student Labor Action Committee (SLAC) was a major factor in the adoption of Alta Gracia apparel in the Bookstore. SLAC’s active participation exemplified the long-term improvements an organized student movement can have on campus. A similar movement could reinforce Occidental’s concerns for fair treatment in the workplace by demanding an end to the college’s partnership with Adidas.

At the very least, Occidental’s contract with Adidas represents a grossly contradictory statement of the institution’s values. The adoption of Alta Gracia apparel is only the first step in a longer effort to promote sweatshop-free attire, but the Athletics Department’s use of the Adidas logo has painted over the college’s commitment to fair labor practices. The longer this exists, the longer hypocrisy will be allowed to endure. The college must take strong steps to ensure companies like Alta Gracia, and not Adidas, bear the Occidental colors for years to come.

Damien Mendieta is an undeclared first-year. He can be reached at mendieta@oxy.edu.

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