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Adidas under fire at Wisc., Berkeley

BY ANDY KROLL
Daily Staff Reporter
Published October 17, 2007

Adidas, the new provider of gear for Michigan sports teams, is under attack on other college campuses for several cases of labor malpractice and human rights violations.

The labor standards in the University of Michigan's Adidas contract are nearly identical to those found in the contracts that those universities have with Adidas. There is almost no change in labor standards from the University's previous contract with Nike. The University has often come under attack from activists who say it doesn't hold its apparel suppliers to high enough labor standards.

The Worker Rights Consortium, a labor rights watchdog group created by college administrators, reported last October that a factory in El Salvador subcontracted to produce Adidas university apparel refused to pay about $825,000 in back pay and severance to workers after the factory closed. Another nearby factory manufacturing Adidas university apparel blacklisted workers who protested to receive their pay, the WRC reported.

Students at the University of Wisconsin at Madison have demanded that Wisconsin terminate its contract with Adidas because of the incidents.

University of Michigan Athletic Director Bill Martin said in July that Adidas had agreed to let the University monitor the labor standards in its factories.

The University Athletic Department did not respond to repeated requests for comment for this story in time for publication.

LSA junior Blase Kearney, a member of student group Students Organized for Labor and Economic Equality, said he doubts that the University will enforce its labor policies. Kearney said he thinks the switch from Nike to Adidas won't result in a real change in labor practices.

"Because they subcontract all their labor, you're getting virtually no change," he said.

The factory in El Salvador accused of labor malpractice was also manufacturing Nike and Russell Athletic apparel.

Kearney said he doesn't think the University's Advisory Committee on Labor Standards and Human Rights will be able to monitor Adidas' labor practices.

The committee, which reviews the University's licensing contracts and labor standards issues for University goods, meets once a month.

Kearney said the University could ensure fair labor practices from companies like Adidas and Nike if it endorsed the Designated Suppliers Program, which identifies factories throughout the world producing university apparel under fair labor conditions.

Kearney and other SOLE members were arrested in April after they held a sit-in in University President Mary Sue Coleman's office demanding that the University join the program.

Coleman said earlier this year that the University would not join the DSP because the program limits the production of collegiate apparel to the small number of factories approved by the program.

According to the Worker Rights Consortium website, the University's Adidas apparel will be produced in factories in China, South Korea, Taiwan and the United States. None of these factories currently listed as producing Adidas apparel for the University are sponsored by the DSP.

Student activists at the University of California at Berkeley began protesting Adidas in February after the company threatened to reduce production at a subcontracted Indonesian factory where workers attempted to form a union.

The University of Wisconsin at Madison's labor standards code of conduct is nearly identical to the University of Michigan's Code of Conduct for Licensees. That code applies to the University's eight-year, $60-million Adidas contract, signed in June and set to take effect next year.

Members of the Student Labor Action Coalition, a group at the university, said the company breached the terms of the University of Wisconsin's labor standards code of conduct. That code requires fair payment for workers and protection from harassment for employees who protest their working conditions.

University of Wisconsin junior Jan Van Tol, a member of SLAC, said in an e-mail interview that drastic action is necessary to make Adidas take the issue seriously.

"We want our administrators to issue a strong threat to Adidas," Van Tol said. "Codes of conduct are not just meaningless pieces of paper that can be freely ignored."

Gregg Nebel, Adidas's director of social and environmental affairs, said the company is committed to providing compensation for the workers in El Salvador.

"We will not stop fighting for a resolution in the El Salvador issue, and we will do the same for others like it where the evidence of wrongdoing is clear," said Nebel, who has worked on the El Salvador labor case for more than two years.

The University of Wisconsin has begun soliciting donations from alumni in an effort to repay the workers.

Nebel said all contracts between Adidas and universities follow Adidas's Supply Chain Code of Conduct, which is posted on the company's website, in addition to each college's own code of conduct for labor standards.

"Adidas's workplace standards are communicated to all of our factories worldwide," Nebel said. "We're committed to ensuring that these standards are maintained in all of our workplaces throughout the world."

University of Wisconsin Chancellor John Wiley said the university had "serious concerns" after sending a representative to inspect the disputed factories in April, according the The Badger Herald, a campus newspaper. The university has not severed ties with Adidas, though.

Wiley said cutting the Adidas contract would prevent the university making further progress in global labor issues.

University of Wisconsin junior Phoebe Taurick, a member of SLAC, said the steps the university has taken so far have been ineffectual.

"These steps are just ways to make our administration feel like they're doing something about the issue," she said.