After allowing its longtime licensing agreement with Nike to expire in December, Georgetown University has struck a deal with the apparel giant that all sides say will help improve conditions for vulnerable garment workers in Asia.
Under the new contract, Nike will help facilitate inspections at its suppliers’ factories by an independent watchdog, the Worker Rights Consortium. The group claimed last year that Nike had refused to allow it to inspect a Vietnam factory roiled by a labor strike; that, in turn, prompted protests by students at Georgetown and other college campuses who urged their administrators to cut ties with Nike.
Scott Nova, the head of the WRC, said the new agreement guarantees his group will be able to interview workers at factories producing Nike’s Georgetown apparel if there are allegations of abuse. Many universities require by contract that the suppliers making collegiate clothes meet basic labor standards, and, like Georgetown, they partner with the WRC to make sure the facilities are scrutinized.
“The combination of our independent monitoring and universities’ enforceable labor standards have been a powerful tool to improve working conditions,” Nova said. “Nike is the most important brand in the collegiate sector. We need to be able to do that work.”
HuffPost reported last year on the dispute between Nike and the WRC, in which hundreds of faculty members from around the country criticized the company for not facilitating an inspection of Vietnam’s Hansae factory, where there had been a pair of three-day strikes by workers.
Sabrina Oei, a spokeswoman for Nike, said the new agreement with Georgetown ”clarifies that [the WRC inspectors] do have a role and that we will help facilitate getting them in the factories.” She also said the new contract paves the way for other colleges to strike similar agreements, which would give the WRC access to monitor more plants.
Nike’s collegiate clothes are produced in 106 factories in 17 countries, most of them in Asia, according to the manufacturing map on its website. After a series of sweatshop scandals in the 1990s, public pressure prompted Nike to make greater strides toward transparency in its supply chain. The company became the first of its kind to publicly list the factories that produce its clothes.
But the apparel giant has had an uneasy relationship with student and labor groups pushing for more accountability. Those groups don’t trust the major clothing brands to adequately police their suppliers, pointing to disasters such as the Rana Plaza collapse in Bangladesh, which claimed more than 1,000 lives in 2013. Students leading campus protests have insisted that independent groups like the WRC, which is not funded by the apparel industry, be given access to the factories.
The group United Students Against Sweatshops coordinated student protests on two dozen campuses and led a sit-in at the office of Georgetown’s president last year. Angeles Solis, the group’s international campaigns coordinator, said Wednesday that the new Georgetown contract was “a reminder that even the largest sports apparel company in the world can be forced into compliance with labor rights standards by the combined efforts of students and garment workers.”
Meghan Dubyak, a spokeswoman for Georgetown, said the school’s administration heard the concern of students and hired a mediator to help reach an agreement with Nike that satisfied everybody.
“I think our community is really heartened by the news,” Dubyak said. “By continuing the discussion we were able to get a better result for workers.”
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story stated that more than 100 people died in the Rana Plaza collapse. In total, the death toll was in fact greater than 1,000.