Editorial cartoon (1/9/13)

All too many people have a tendency to roll their eyes whenever University of Wisconsin-Madison students and faculty members raise questions about the exclusive contracts apparel manufacturers like Adidas have with the university.

Because the production of their products was outsourced years ago, companies like Adidas, Nike and other big names in the athletic clothing and shoe business have long eschewed American wages and work regulations to take advantage of low pay and weak work standards in developing countries.

If the university is going to contract with these companies to take advantage of royalties and support for its athletic programs — the Adidas agreement is worth $2.5 million to UW and millions more to Adidas — then the school needs to make sure the manufacturers are living up to the “code of conduct” that the university requires of its suppliers. Among other provisions, the code requires that pay is fair, hours are reasonable, there is severance pay, and a minimum of health and safety regulations are in place.

There’s a strong belief, after all, that the university shouldn’t be profiting off the backs of mistreated workers, even if they’re from some far-off land.

Adidas has been under fire at the UW in recent months because the corporation is refusing to give some 2,700 Indonesian workers severance pay after the factory making Adidas products suddenly closed. The debate over whether Adidas has violated its contract with the UW is still under way.

Just how important it is that these outsourced contracts are carefully scrutinized has been underscored in spades by the scandal that’s unraveled in recent weeks because of a fire at a garment factory in Bangladesh.

A total of 112 workers perished in a grisly blaze at the Tazreen Fashions factory, which has contracts with many profitable U.S. companies, including several suppliers to Walmart, America’s largest corporation.

Although the big U.S. corporations claimed they were unaware of problems at the factory, subsequent investigations revealed that several inspection reports conducted before the tragedy documented repeated safety violations, including a lack of fire alarms in many areas, a shortage of fire extinguishers and obstacles blocking workers’ escape routes. And while Walmart execs continued to say they knew of no problems at the factory, a report surfaced that the American company had led an effort to block a plan to have it and other retailers underwrite safety improvements in Bangladeshi apparel factories. They want the factories to pay for their own safety improvements, even while the factories are being pressured to hold down costs.

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A New York Times report of the Tazreen investigation declared, “Walmart has become the world’s largest retailer by demanding the lowest costs from suppliers and delivering the lowest prices to consumers — while promising its customers that the billions of dollars of goods it buys from Bangladesh, China and other countries are produced in safe, non-sweatshop factories. Walmart buys more than $1 billion in garments from Bangladesh each year, attracted by the country’s $37-a-month minimum wage, the lowest in the world.”

The Tazreen revelations have provoked an international outcry, including demonstrations against Walmart executives when they appear at meetings and conferences. The Bangladeshi fire, coupled with news that the corporation’s executives had bribed Mexican authorities to get new stores located in favorable locations, has caused the company to re-examine its internal operations.

There isn’t much, except to organize protests, that people can do to bring pressure to bear on private companies that maximize profits at the expense of workers in foreign lands.

Except, of course, if it’s a public institution like the University of Wisconsin. All the more power to principled students and faculty members to require at least a modicum of public responsibility.

Dave Zweifel is editor emeritus of The Capital Times. dzweifel@madison.com