A new group at The University of Alabama wants to provide a fair-labor alternative to the Nike products that fill UA’s Supply Store. Mark Ortiz, a sophomore majoring in biology and New College, said his group, Students for Fair Labor, is pushing back against the popular brand for its reported human rights abuses.
“Right now when you walk into the bookstore, you’re likely to get clothes [from] Nike, which is a serial human rights abuser, as are a lot of the other brands that we see in a lot of college bookstores,” Ortiz said.
Students for Fair Labor said they would like to have Alta Gracia, a sweatshop-free brand which pays workers a living wage, stocked in the Supply Store alongside more traditional brands in order to provide consumers with an alternative.
Ortiz said there are practical benefits to stocking Alta Gracia, aside from strictly ethical considerations.
“The great thing about Alta Gracia is that it is actually cheaper than Nike or Adidas,” Ortiz said.
Amanda Reyes, a master’s student in women’s studies and a member of Students for Fair Labor, said a living wage is different from a minimum wage, because it allows workers to provide for their families in a way that the minimum wage does not.
“You can’t raise children on a minimum wage that is not a living wage; you can’t afford childcare. You can’t afford to buy your children clothes or to send your children to good schools,” Reyes said.
Ortiz said the living wage accounts for the actual cost of living, which is different from place to place.
“A living wage is essentially just a wage that calculates the cost of living for a standard family – the cost of food, the cost of clothing, the cost of shelter – it is a wage that essentially holds the employer responsible for ensuring that his or her employers can actually live,” Ortiz said.
The University has also committed to fair labor practices. In a 2010 press release announcing the University’s $30 million licensing agreement with Nike, the University said Nike would manufacture its products in factories that provide fair labor conditions.
“Alabama Athletics and Nike have affirmed their strong commitment to fair labor pracitices, a commitment that falls in line with the University of Alabama’s labor standards,” the release read.
Ortiz, however, said Alta Gracia pays workers this living wage, which is much higher than the minimum wage that might be earned by sweatshop workers. Nike’s Code of Conduct only ensures at least the minimum wage in the countries that host their factories.
“The living wage differs from state to state and country to country, but typically the minimum wage is vastly lower than a living wage,” he said. “In the Dominican Republic, where Alta Gracia is located, the living wage which Alta Gracia workers get paid is over three times the minimum wage for their respective area.”
Ortiz said large corporations participate in a “race to the bottom,” in which they use workers in countries with lax labor regulations to avoid paying those workers decent wages.
“Corporations are planting factories in developing nations that don’t have the same labor protections we have,” he said. “Their form of competition is finding which nations provide the most opportunities for exploitation, so they can pay their workers very little, they can deprive them of benefits.”
Reyes said she agreed that a systemic problem existed.
“They target countries that have policies in place that discourage worker organizing,” she said.
She also said the U.S. has encouraged policies that lead to the lowering of labor standards.
“The way that we choose to exercise our influence around the world has created situations where these things can happen,” she said.
Ortiz also said everyone has a part to play in reducing the number of sweatshops worldwide by choosing to buy from companies that do not produce their products in this way.
“Consumer responsibility plays a huge role in this,” he said. “The consumer must be aware of where he or she is getting these clothes from and what human rights abuses might be involved.”
He said the management of the Supply Store has so far refused to meet with Students for Fair Labor about getting Alta Gracia products placed in stores on campus.