Students who are brand-loyal and diehard fans of Nike’s swoosh might not like the latest move by the UW administration, which has pledged to drop the university’s contract with Nike over sweatshop abuses. But if new athletics sponsorships at UCLA, Berkeley, or Rutgers offer any guidance, most students will probably get over not being able to buy Nike products on campus, and switch their loyalties to Under Armour, Adidas, and other big name apparel brands.

Nike’s troubles with the UW started in the 2015-16 academic year, when it refused to allow one of the university’s anti-sweatshop monitoring organizations — the Worker Rights Consortium (WRC) — into a Nike supplier factory in Vietnam. Besides independent labor unions, the WRC is the world’s premier anti-sweatshop monitoring organization, and was the only organization that Nike workers at a Vietnamese factory called Hansae trusted to lodge their complaints. 

Based on worker complaints voiced to the WRC, serious allegations of labor rights abuses surfaced at this factory, which Nike had sourced products from in Vietnam for 10 years. These allegations  –– later verified by the WRC –– included workers fainting on the job due to insufferable heat levels inside the factory, well above legal Vietnamese limits of 90 degrees Fahrenheit.   

Workers making Nike products at Hansae were also subjected to wage theft, the imposition of illegal recruitment fees by managers, verbal and physical harassment, pregnancy discrimination, forced overtime, denial of sick leave and bathroom breaks, exposure to hazardous solvents, and numerous other health and safety violations. 

Previously, Nike had claimed that its 10-year sourcing relationship with Hansae put this manufacturing plant under Nike’s own internal, self-monitoring program, as well as the supposedly “comprehensive” audits of an industry-funded organization called the Fair Labor Association (FLA). But the FLA failed to uncover widespread labor rights abuses at Nike’s Hansae factory, and it was only after garment workers spoke out that the WRC was able to document all of the anti-sweatshop violations at this plant. 

Beyond the monstrous labor abuses being hidden at Hansae, Nike also violated U.S. universities’ collegiate anti-sweatshop standards by initially refusing to allow the WRC to conduct on-site investigations at Nike’s supplier factory. Although Nike granted the WRC one-time access to Hansae in 2016 (alongside its own preferred and Nike-funded FLA auditors), the company has continually refused to allow the WRC future access for investigations at other factories in its global supply chain. 

Nike’s refusal to grant the WRC factory access to its’ supplier plants makes Nike the only UW-licensed apparel brand to block factory investigations by one of the university’s affiliated monitoring organizations. Indeed, Nike is the only collegiate apparel brand that refuses to sign onto anti-sweatshop standards, which require it to allow the WRC or another monitor of universities’ choosing into their factories. None of Nike’s competitors, including Adidas, Russell Athletic, and Under Armour, bar the WRC or other agents of universities from accessing their collegiate production facilities. 

In response to Nike’s position of blocking WRC access, as well as the horrific human rights abuses at Hansae, student members of UW United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS) demanded that universities enforce their labor commitments by dropping lucrative clothing contracts with Nike. 

As a result of USAS activism, as well as pro-human rights representatives on university oversight committees, Georgetown University and the entire University of California system adopted new policies requiring factory access for the WRC and other independent monitors. At Rutgers University, whose sports teams were formerly sponsored by Nike and are now outfitted by Adidas, a new athletics contract was predicated on allowing independent investigators of Rutgers’ choosing into the garment factories of its licensed apparel brands. Georgetown let its clothing contract with Nike expire December 31, 2016, while the University of California is also letting its Nike agreements lapse, due in part to Nike’s strident position of refusing WRC factory access. 

At the UW, president Ana Mari Cauce’s Advisory Committee of Trademarks and Licensing (ACTL), of which I am the committee’s student co-chair and USAS representative, has deliberated on how to respond to Nike’s sweatshop violations for the last two years. During the 2015-16 academic year, the ACTL committee passed a unanimous recommendation to add contract language to the university’s licensing agreements with every apparel brand, including Nike, to explicitly require WRC factory access.  

Although Cauce issued a letter accepting ACTL’s recommendation in 2016, the UW’s implementation of its new WRC factory access policy was thwarted by the fact that Nike had been operating on one-year extensions of a basic licensing agreement for 13 years. Nike’s basic licensing contract does not include any of the anti-sweatshop policies that all other UW brands are subject to, which the ACTL committee had recommended strengthening. 

Due to Nike’s exceptionalism as the only UW-licensed clothing brand to operate outside of long-standing anti-sweatshop oversight rules, ACTL was faced with the choice of recommending whether or not to renew the university’s contract with Nike. At its May 2 meeting, the ACTL committee passed a recommendation to let the UW’s licensing agreement with Nike expire on June 30, 2017, unless Nike reversed its position on WRC factory access and also fixed its labor rights violations at Hansae. 

President Cauce had many reasons to not accept ACTL’s recommendation and let Nike off the hook. Nike bankrolls the UW’s athletics programs in a sponsorship contract worth an estimated $32-$40 million. Additionally, some administrators who advise Cauce were not in favor of ACTL recommending that the UW drop its Nike contract. Finally, the university’s clothing licensing contract with Nike is worth an estimated $5 million, and the UW’s annual royalty income of $284,000, accounts for over 15 percent of the university’s $1.7 million total royalty payments received from apparel companies. 

Ultimately, Cauce equalled her 2016 commitment by issuing a strong letter pledging to not renew the UW’s clothing contract with Nike on June 30 if the company does not correct human rights abuses at Hansae and permit WRC monitors in its factories. The university’s multi-million athletics sponsorship agreement will not be affected by president Cauce’s policy, in part due to Nike’s unyielding negotiating history, which makes this agreement nearly impossible for the university to terminate. 

Cauce’s final decision to hold Nike accountable is worthy of significant praise, especially as colleges with big sports programs are becoming increasingly corporatized, with powerful athletic coaches and business-friendly administrators almost always advising university presidents to appease apparel behemoths like Nike, not regulate them.

For Husky fans of Nike products, the ball is in Nike’s court for the renewal of its UW apparel contract. Hopefully, when it comes to simply granting the WRC access to its garment factories, Nike will just do it. 


Reach columnist Rod Palmquist at Twitter: @rodpalmquist

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