Yenny Perez stood quietly in front of a group of students yesterday morning in the Michigan Union as a translator related her experience working in a garment factory in the Dominican Republic.

Mike Hulsebus
Union organizer Yenny Perez talks about her experience at the BJ & B baseball cap factory in the Dominican Republic. The event was sponsored by Students Organizing for Labor and Economic Equality (BENJI DELL/Daily)

Perez, age 31, who said she sewed hats in the BJ&B baseball cap factory in the Dominican Republic until it closed in February, briefly told the group of 20 students about her experience trying to establish a union in the factory.

Students Organizing for Labor and Economic Equality arranged the event, which was held in the Parker Room of the Union, as part of its continuing Sweatfree campaign to pressure the University to agree to abide by the Designated Suppliers Program. The program, developed by the Workers Rights Consortium, would required the University to only purchase apparel from suppliers that allow union representation of workers and pay a living wage – or enough to sustain a worker and his or her family working no more than 48 hours a week. The consortium also conducts inspections of the factories.

The University currently monitors labor practices through its Vendor Code of Conduct, which outlines labor standards on issues such as discrimination, wages, safety and unions.

After a SOLE campaign last year, University President Mary Sue Coleman charged the Labor Standards and Human Rights Committee with reviewing the vendor code and the Designated Suppliers’ Program. In a letter dated May 10 of last year, Coleman accepted the committee’s recommendation not to adopt the program. Instead, the committee suggested strengthening the University’s current vendor code.

The Sweatfree campaign maintains that the vendor code is not strictly enforced.

“The mechanisms don’t exist,” said SOLE member Leigh Wedenoja at yesterday’s event.

Over her week-long visit to the United States sponsored by United Students Against Sweatshops, Perez will speak at seven schools and events including the University of Southern California, Purdue University and a rally in Chicago.

LSA sophomore Micaela Battiste, who asked Perez several questions, said she liked the event because it was an “opportunity to hear the word straight from the person experiencing it.”

Perez said BJ & B, which made apparel for companies like Nike and Reebok, closed without warning on Feb. 22. The factory is not officially scheduled to close until May 22.

Perez, who is four months pregnant, told the audience that establishing a union was difficult because talking about unions in the factory was “like speaking about the devil.”

She said she had the most success in recruiting workers by distributing a flyer with a photo of her and her four children and the caption, “For you and your children, join a union.”

She said many workers were afraid to join a union because the management told them that a union would put the factory in danger of closing because it would be less attractive to contracted suppliers.

Perez said that over the three years since she began working to establish one, the factory downsized from 1,800 employees to 300.

Perez said the closure has devastated her village.

SOLE members brought Perez to Coleman’s office yesterday but they did not get to meet her because they did not have an appointment.

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