On-campus activist group Sweatshop Free OSU is taking their cause directly to Oregon State University President Ed Ray.
“The main obstacle we have is the administration,” said group founder Marie Recine.
The group is the OSU branch of the larger organization United Students Against Sweatshops. USAS is run solely by what they refer to as, “youth and students,” who, as proclaimed on their website, pride themselves on reaching campuses across the nation and instilling their messages of worker solidarity and justice. They claim that the school has been negligent in assuring that OSU gear is manufactured ethically.
In November of 2016, group members presented a handwritten petition directly to the desk of President Ray. The petition demanded that OSU partner with the human rights monitor Worker Rights Consortium, and stock the brand Alta Gracia, a label which prides itself on ethical labor.
“My first goal is get the administration to realize that we are not upholding the Oregon State Mission Statement to ‘promote economic, social, cultural and environmental progress for the people of Oregon, the nation and the world,’ if we are sourcing our Beaver apparel from companies that are using sweatshops and unfair labor practices,” Recine said.
This is not the first time this topic has been broached with the administration. The OSU chapter of Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlan raised the issue to the administration in 2013 with little to show for it.
“The administration is playing dumb, when really they are actively avoiding meeting with students around this pressing human rights issue,” said 2015 alumna and former MECHA member Nicthe Verdugo in a press release in November. “It’s extremely discouraging that generations of students have taken up the cause of human rights in the garment industry, and the OSU administration still ignores them, at garment workers’ expense.”
In the past, the Beaver Store has sold Alta Gracia brand gear, but has since discontinued doing so. The brand’s gear is priced higher than many of its competitors, but proponents argue that the monetary cost is a small price to pay for the social responsibility that comes with supporting such businesses.
Beaver Store Merchandise Manager Erik Anderson has a different perspective on the matter.
“The OSU Beaver Store is a nonprofit organization with a mission to champion textbook affordability at OSU,” Anderson said. “We discount our textbook prices 11 percent and that discount is funded through the sale of Beaver merchandise. If we were to substitute Beaver merchandise brands that have proven to sell very well with brands that have proven to sell very poorly, such as Alta Gracia, it would financially harm our students by reducing the resources available for our textbook discount.”
According to Anderson, the majority of OSU gear originates overseas, with the bulk of it coming from Asia. He said that all merchandise brands are approved by the university and follow the standards used by University Trademark Licensing with respect to worker protections.
The school’s vice president for university relations and marketing, Steve Clark, spoke in support of Anderson’s attempts to assuage the ethical concerns raised by Sweatshop Free OSU.
“The labor code that is required to be signed by all Oregon State licensed wholesalers addresses multiple labor and working conditions,” Clark said. “For example, a wholesaler’s manufacturer must meet requirements for wages that at least meet minimum wage of the country in which the manufacturing is done and local prevailing industry wages; not employ any person younger than 15 years old or observe International Labor Organization practices regarding child labor for developing countries; not require hourly or quota based employees to work more than 48 hours and 12 hours overtime or observe and adhere to that country’s hourly work week requirements and provide overtime compensation; observe and adhere to policies
protecting women’s rights.”
Despite the school’s placating words, Recine isn’t satisfied. She claims that there are those that are still turning a blind eye to what she sees as injustice.
“People are still dying. Children still go to bed hungry. Workers are still exploited,” said Recine.
Clark remains confident Oregon State’s business dealings are moral.
“Oregon State University definitely is ethically minded and adheres to strict ethical standards. By the virtue of the labor code requirements that must be followed by all Oregon State licensed wholesalers, all OSU-licensed apparel sold by any retailer, including the OSU Beaver Store, is ethically manufactured.” Clark said.