Last year I carried on a conversation with a printer in Florida who sells his own line of Democratic Party and “progressive” apparel. After I asked him where his shirts were made, he admitted that they were made in the Caribbean by workers who were probably mistreated and paid a dirt-cheap, grindingly low minimum wage, but that “we need to do what helps us with the cash flow.” Gosh darn it, he said, he just didn’t have a choice in the matter. Neither did those poor Caribbean workers who, he reminded me, need some kind of job after all.
This year, a new line of t-shirts is available to wholesalers from a Caribbean factory that is fully unionized, is independently verified to pay 338% of the minimum wage with built-in cost of living increases and an array of benefits, and is inspected by a wholly independent, publicly reporting auditor as often as every other week. It’s a nice arrangement: workers at this Caribbean factory (named “Alta Gracia” after the town where it sits) get their jobs and people in the USA have an opportunity to wear shirts produced ethically. With the introduction of the Alta Gracia shirt line this shirt printer in Florida certainly has a choice in the matter, but I’ve seen no indication that he’s moving to shift his supply of blank shirts to this new source. “Cash flow,” also known as profit, wins out.
This year news that the shirtmaker American Apparel may be in economic trouble has led other printers to reduce their American Apparel stock and tend toward Anvil shirts, including those made in the Star SA factory of Honduras. American Apparel consistently pays above minimum wage, has offered an array of benefits to workers, and is subject to the relatively rigorous set of worker-protective regulations and inspections in the American workplace. It is also still offering a full line of shirts wholesale to printers. This move to printing on Anvil shirts has made me curious. What does the Star SA factory offer? Is it the best that can be hoped for?
When I started to probe into the conditions at the Star SA factory, I received an interesting set of communications. The first seemed hopeful:
But some problems emerge:
- WRAP certificates actually aren’t posted at anvilcsr.com. As verified through communications with Anvil representatives, the certifications posted at anvilcsr.com mostly have to do with the contents of the fabric. Conversation with an Anvil representative revealed that the Anvil shirts I was trying to track from the Star SA factory aren’t included in the trackmyt.com website either.
- WRAP certification is a controversial standard by which individual factories self-audit themselves, then pay someone to follow up on that audit. Because the follow-up auditor is hired for and paid by the factory being inspected, WRAP audits are not independent.
- All resulting reports on factories in the WRAP certification system are kept confidential, which means that no one in the public can verify claims about working conditions in a WRAP factory.
In follow-up appeals to Anvil corporate representatives, I asked for copies of the WRAP certification and for copies of the audit reports that are the basis for this certification. An executive assistant to the CEO at Anvil first sent me a one-page certificate — yes, literally a certificate with a pretty border like your child gets for graduating from Kindergarten. As you can see for yourself, it contains no detail of working conditions.
When I first asked for audit reports that make up the basis for the Anvil Star SA WRAP certification, Anvil told me “that information is not made public.” With prompting, Anvil sent on a two-page report, which an Anvil Vice President wrote to me is “is all we receive. We are not privy to any reports that the WRAP auditor shares with WRAP.” The first page is the same certificate I received above. The second page is a list of twelve general standards, each followed by the single word “OK.” There is no detail. There is no documentation.
This is all the Anvil corporation says it receives regarding the WRAP certification (through self-certification and a non-independent audit) that everything’s OK at the Star SA factory in Honduras. Is that enough information to make you comfortable buying Anvil shirts made there?
Anvil says its WRAP certification began in 2006. But in 2007, an independent report emerged of mass firings of workers who tried to join a union. Another independent report regarding conditions at the Star SA factory in 2007 indicated:
Workers testified that factory supervisors engaged in verbal abuse of workers (yelling at workers and addressing them with vulgar and derogatory epithets), and that in some cases, supervisors physically abused workers inside the plant as a means of enforcing discipline. Workers testified to instances of serious sexual harassment by male
supervisors of female workers in the facility. Workers testified that they were forced to work overtime and that they were subjected to unreasonable restrictions on their access to bathrooms and drinking water….
In February 2008, the WRC contacted Star in order to arrange to review the WRC’s findings concerning code of conduct compliance in areas unrelated to freedom of association, and to seek cooperation from Anvil in reviewing relevant documentation and interviewing managers related to the dismissal of the second group of workers.
Anvil responded by indicating it would not cooperate with the WRC. The company’s position was that it was engaging directly with the union at the plant concerning the dismissals and the WRC’s role as a monitor of university codes of conduct was therefore not applicable to the situation. The WRC responded that there were numerous issues of concern in addition to the dismissals. The WRC also noted that, in terms of the dismissals themselves, the fact that there was a dialogue between management and the union did not exempt the factory from its obligation to demonstrate compliance with university codes. If the dismissals were unlawful, the factory had an obligation to remediate this violation.
Repeated efforts to secure the company’s cooperation, over a period of months, did not bear fruit – on several occasions, the company indicated a willingness to schedule a WRC visit to the factory and then failed to follow up….
Despite Anvil’s failure to cooperate, the WRC was able to gather sufficient evidence to assess the legality of the dismissals. This evidence strongly supported the conclusion that the workers were dismissed unlawfully.
An additional scandal last year regarding worker mistreatment involved a factory called Hugger de Honduras that produces under subcontract for the Star SA factory. This scandal grew so large that earlier this year the University of Wisconsin canceled contracts for another Hugger de Honduras brand, Nike.
When there are multiple reports of problems with treatment of workers involving a factory during a period of years in which Anvil asserts WRAP certification, and when all the documentation of WRAP certification that Anvil receives is a pretty one-page certificate and twelve uses of the word “OK,” are you comfortable receiving that shirt? Until I receive more detailed documentation, I’m not comfortable…
… and even if American Apparel goes under, you and I have a choice in the matter. There’s the Alta Gracia shirt I mentioned above. Closer to home, Lifewear 100% cotton shirts are made in the USA using American cotton in Pennsylvania by a unionized workforce that earns an average of more than $11 an hour plus bonuses, health insurance and a pension plan. The Lifewear factory is subject to the more rigorous regulation and inspection standards of the United States. I’ve checked out the wholesale prices for the Lifewear shirts, and they’re quite affordable.
The choices are there. Whether you are a printer who buys shirts wholesale or a citizen who buys shirts retail, you do have a choice. I encourage you to make your own inquiries into the circumstances of shirt production and to demand detail in documentation. Pay attention to to information you do and don’t receive. Then make your choice.
[To make turnabout fair play, here's full disclosure: at the time of writing this article, neither I nor Irregular Times has any economic, social, personal, intellectual, elemental or astrological relationship whatsoever with Alta Gracia, Lifewear or Anvil brand shirts.]