The University of Washington will cut its contract with Nike unless the apparel giant allows independent labor investigators unprecedented access to the factories in which its clothes are produced.
In an internal letter sent last Friday, UW President Ana Mari Cauce said that she is “prepared to let the contract lapse” with Nike to produce UW-themed apparel unless Nike requires its supplier factories to give on-demand access to the Worker’s Rights Consortium (WRC), an investigatory and advocacy group. “It must also be the responsibility and obligation of Nike and their contractors to cooperate fully with such investigations,” said Cauce, “including free and full access to all facilities, materials and records that may be relevant to such an investigation.”
Rod Palmquist, a UW student and co-chair of UW’s Advisory Committee on Trademarks and Licensing (ACTL), says Cauce’s move could affect real change with the Oregon-based company, which has long been shadowed with workers-rights concerns.
“President Cauce’s commitment to require WRC monitoring to renew the contract is the only way to effectively move Nike,” he says. “Companies don’t voluntarily make changes that affect their profits or their business models out of the goodwill of their hearts. They make changes because of external forces.
“Nike is never going to allow the WRC to access its factories unless universities, as major licensing business partners, actually compel them to change their behavior by cutting these contracts.”
The UW’s current contract for Nike to produce UW-licensed apparel, which is not exclusive, has been in place since at least 2001 and possibly a little earlier, according to UW spokesperson Victor Balta. In 2016, the relationship produced for Nike close to $5 million and for the UW about $284,000 in royalties. The UW has licensing agreements with hundreds of companies, and over the past five years Nike generated 17 percent of the university’s overall royalty revenue, says Balta.
Cauce already agreed in principle with an ACTL recommendation to threaten divestment in a letter last year, though not with the specificity found in her new letter. “I support ACTL’s recommendation, and…I am determining how to implement it,” she wrote then.
The University of California and Georgetown University are both allowing their contracts with Nike to expire due in part to labor abuses.
Part of the context for the ACTL’s recommendation and Cauce’s decision to threaten to divest from Nike is a report published last year by the WRC which found dramatic labor abuses at a Nike-supplier factory in Vietnam. The abuses documented at the Hansae Vietnam factory included wage theft, illegal fees, verbal and physical harassment by managers, pregnancy discrimination, forced overtime, illegal lack of toilet breaks and sick leave, and labor busting. Also, the inside of the factory is so hot, busy, and filled with chemical fumes that there was a “chronic problem of workers collapsing” on the factory floor. In her letter, Cauce said she’d also demand an “active, timely resolution to full remediation of code of conduct violations at Hansae” before approving UW’s contract renewal with Nike. Currently, Nike does not require its suppliers to cooperate with WRC investigators, though it does require them to submit to private audits by private firms.
Nike’s labor abuses have been a contentious issue for years. In 2010, former co-chair of the UW’s Licensing Advisory Committee Trevor Griffey wrote about the issue in an op-ed in The Seattle PI. More recently, United Students Against Sweatshops rallied outside the UW student union building to pressure Cauce to play hardball with Nike.
Palmquist says these efforts have a history of working.
“In 2009, Nike was embroiled in sweatshop abuses in Honduras where they owed $2 million to workers in severance pay. For months, Nike refused to take responsibility…until a small number of university’s did the same thing that President Cauce is committing to” in her letter, he says. “Once a few schools did that, Nike changed its policy and paid that money. It’s possible that the University of Washington’s actions could have the same effect—that President Cauce’s decision could actually get Nike to change its policy.”
Nike responded to our inquiry about Cauce’s letter with the following statement:
“Nike is fully committed to the independent monitoring of contract factories that produce Nike product. We have spent many years working with multi-stakeholder groups to build industry wide approaches to deliver independent, third party audits as part of ongoing contract factory compliance monitoring, which is why we engage the accredited auditing programs of the Fair Labor Association and International Labour Organization Better Work. We value our relationship with the University of Washington and are committed to working with the university to find a path forward.”
This post has been updated, and President Cauce’s first names have been corrected.