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Most of us couldn't fathom life in a sweatshop – working for 10 cents an hour, enduring 12-hour days, seven days a week – where asking permission to use the bathroom could result in a hasty dismissal.

Unfortunately, this dismal life is a reality for millions of overseas garment workers who produce college apparel. Major manufacturers like Nike, Reebok, Champion and Russell Athletic, with whom countless universities have licensing agreements, have been accused of taking advantage of cheap labor overseas.

And they've been getting away with it until now.

Student activists are blowing the whistle on these companies and are working to protect the rights of overseas sweatshop workers.

"These manufacturers of athletic apparel are such hypocrites," says U. of Arizona senior Maria Jordan. "They promote a healthy lifestyle but do just the opposite with overseas sweatshops."

Last year, students at Duke U. founded the first campus chapter of United Students Against Sweatshops. Today, there are more than 50 chapters nationwide working with the Collegiate Licensing Company to negotiate a universal code of conduct for manufacturers.

Ideally, the code would decrease child labor, improve wages to meet employees' basic needs, and stipulate that no employee may be subject to any physical, sexual, psychological or verbal harassment.

But even the code presented by USAS is not perfect. Besides being vague, it doesn't include enforcement provisions or a full public disclosure clause requiring manufacturers to make the locations of their factories public so human rights organizations could monitor the conditions. Administrators with the information have promised to keep it top secret. Students at 13 schools say they will not support a code without the clause.

"The fact that Duke, UNC and many other universities are refusing to disclose factory locations should make the public very suspicious," says Duke U. freshman Beth Moore.

Rick Van Brimmer, Ohio State U. director for trademark and licensing, thinks universities are on the right track, however, because the issue has been raised to the level of national consciousness. "Safe work environments and fair wages are universal rights, and I think most companies want to do the right thing," he says.

But until improvements in overseas workplaces are more visible, students across the country will keep sending the big-name manufacturers who consider using sweatshops to produce college apparel an overwhelming message – Just Don't Do It.

By Jennifer McKean, U. of Arizona/Photo courtesty of Duke U.


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