What do you call a university that has an ethical purchasing code and still ends up buying clothes from unethical purchasers? A child would call them liars. A nice educated person might call them hypocrites. An angry educated person would call them a wide variety of words that would ultimately get censored. I struggled with what to call it, but after much deliberation I decided to call it simply… “the University of Guelph”.

In 2004, Students Against Sweatshops (SAS) pressured the University of Guelph administration to create a an ethical code for purchasing apparel. This, at the time, seemed like a very progressive move that would change how the University chooses their distributors forever. In 2008, however, the athletics department would make a choice that completely overlooked the ethical policy. This choice was a partnership with long-time corporate tyrant, Russell Apparel. This corporation has a history of unethical treatment of workers. And so the issue became a concern of the Code of Ethical Conduct.  The case of Russell Apparel raises important questions on whether the policy is adequate and why it is not being implemented.  The bottom line is that the University has a contract with a company that is a union-busting, sweatshop-owning menace which is producing in a country that recently had a bloody military coup.  The reasons why this is the case are a little more complex and will be examined in detail below.

The committee that oversees the University’s Code of Ethical Conduct has been working with the Worker Rights Consortium which has, in turn, been discussing the situation with Russell Apparel. This apparel corporation has shut down the only two factories in Honduras in which workers had organized unions. This is a clear violation of the University’s code:

University suppliers and subcontractors must recognize and respect the legal rights of employees to freedom of association, to freely form and join unions of their choice, and to collective bargaining with bargaining representatives of their own choice, without fear of harassment, intimidation or retaliation.


Workers on our campus have come out in solidarity with the rights of Honduran workers and rightly criticized the University’s administration for lack of action.  In the January/February CUPE 3913 newsletter Wilson Harron writes;

The administration at this university seems to believe that they can have their cake and eat it too, while the workers in Honduras don’t even get their bread.  They refuse to accept responsibility for enforcing the code that students and unions have fought to strengthen over the last few years.  The University should and must demand that Russell Athletics reopen their factory as a condition for continuing the contract.

Despite the plea from CUPE a one-year contract was signed last spring with HD Brown (the distributer for Russell).  The University did write a letter to HD Brown saying that Russell should reopen its factory but this was not a pre-condition for the contract, as Harron demands in his article.

The Code of Ethical Conduct Committee is affiliated with the Worker Rights Consortium (WRC) because the University of Guelph itself does not have the means to send inspectors all over the world conducting ethical practices research.  In one of the WRC’s latest reports to the University of Guelph they wrote that they are still working to “reach agreement on a plan to fully remediate the labor rights violations in Honduras”.  This has been a two-year process of investigating Russell’s abuses in Honduras and it is time that the WRC and the University of Guelph take stronger measures with the company than writing letters and “working to reach agreements”.  By the WRC’s own admission in their September report;

It has been nearly a year since Russell Announced the closure of the JDH factory and more than two years since the WRC first reported serious violations of worker rights at Russell factories in Honduras.  During that time, the JDH workers have suffered extraordinary hardships and an environment has been created that has had a severe chilling effect on the associational rights of workers throughout the company’s Honduran operations.

After a recent 90 day “special review period” the WRC should be reporting back to Guelph with a plan soon.  I say, enough is enough!  While the WRC offers essential information for our University to make these important descisions, are other companies going to take the WRC seriously if it takes them two years to get to this stage where Russell might be removed from its ethical purchasing list?

The Coup

As if Russell’s outrageous labour rights abuses were not reason enough to end the contract, add to that a military coup and a dose of fascism.  On June 28th earlier this year, Honduran president Manuel Zelaya, who had fought for workers’ right (effectively raising minimum wage), was overthrown by a violent coup.  This military-backed government was condemned by nearly all governmental administrations worldwide. For the first time in a very long time, world leaders, despite differences, agreed that a military coup in Honduras was threatening the democracy and stability of the entire region. On July 4th 2009, the Organization of the American States suspended Honduras’ involvement in the organization as the person in power, Roberto Micheletti, was regarded as the leader of the coup d’etat.
Zelaya’s alleged charges and reason for ousting came after he sought to pass a non-binding poll asking the people:

Are you in accord that in the general elections of November 2009 there be included a fourth ballot in which the people decide whether to hold a National Constituent Assembly?

This poll question was the excuse the right needed. They used this opportunity to blow things out of proportion and falsely accuse President Zelaya.  An excuse to oust him and keep him out until the November elections, an election that he was not running in anyway.

This National Constituent Assembly would reevaluate their constitution. Why does Honduras need to reevaluate its constitution? The constitution was written by a constituent assembly that was elected after a period of military regimes, over 25 years ago. Since then, the only group capable of amending the constitution has been the national congress. Social-political groups, such as feminist leaders, Afro-Honduran groups, the labour movement and queer advocates, have expressed immense concern, especially after the ousting of the Honduran President, with the current state of the constitution.
Nevertheless, the present constitution forbids dictator Micheletti, as an executive member of congress, to become president of Honduras. Of course, constitutional rights matter very little to a dictatorship. The main hypocrisy of this coup is that though they claim to be defending the constitution by ousting President Zelaya, they abolished constitutional rights to give the police and army the authority to imprison protestors without trial, and to give legitimacy to the dictatorship which is now rounding up strikers and protesters and holding them in sports fields converted into concentration camp(this is a chilling replay of Pinochet’s 1973 coup in Chile).  All dissident media has been shut down by the military and journalists are being arrested.  Article 3 of the constitution states that no one is obligated to obey a government that sought power through force and that the people have the right to overthrow this government in order to protect their constitutional government.

The Honduran people took their concern to the streets, as was their constitutional right, and demanded their president back. The dictatorship immediately saw these people as a significant risk to their plans and imposed a curfew. The curfew was not to a way to get people out of the streets, as it was obvious that the people did not give the military-backed government any legitimacy.  The curfew was a tool to justify the methods of repression that would follow. The police and army arrested, tortured, raped and killed civilians.  One of the most recent killings was that of a student that rode his bicycle by a police officer and shouted “golpista” (Spanish word meaning ‘coup supporter/enabler’) and was immediately shot point-blank in the head.


Russell Apparel and the Coup

The big question is; should our University be buying apparel from companies that continue to produce in a country with such insane human rights abuses?  Boycotts and economic sanctions have worked in the past to end brutal human rights abusers (ie, South African Apartheid).  Should there be a “fascist coup clause” in our purchasing policy?  Another question: should our University be buying apparel from companies that have either tacitly or, maybe even directly, supported the overthrow of a democratically elected government?  On July 27th, four major apparel brands with suppliers in Honduras signed a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton demanding the restoration of democracy and an end to civil and human rights abuses.  These companies included Knights Apparel, the Gap, Adidas and Nike.  Notice anyone missing?  Despite multiple entreaties to sign, Russell refused.  Russell is the largest employer in Honduras.  Had it been part of the letter, the Micheletti dictatorship would have got the message.

Furthermore, Russell is one of the biggest players in the Honduran Maquiladora (read: sweatshop) Association, which has actively backed the coup, and whose leaders have gone on record supporting the dictatorship.  A recent WRC report points to the “apparel industry” forcing its workers to participate in pro-coup rallies.  On July 3, some factories were shut down and workers were bused to the rallies.  It is reported that workers participated felt that they could not refuse and that thousands of workers were affected.  The WRC does not report on which factories or companies participated in this practice, and this can admittedly only be used as circumstantial evidence against Russell until more information is uncovered.  However, it is not hard to understand what’s in it for Russell in having Zelaya ousted.  The “golpistas” promise a return to the old sweat shop wages and zero enforcement of labour law.  Russell, just like all corporations, ultimately care about one thing: profit.  It is much more convenient for you as a company to have a dictatorship do your union busting for you than have to do it on your own dime.  It must be nice to have that kind of close relationship with the state that was lacking in the Zelaya days.

“Cut and Run” vs. “Collaboration”

It would be simplistic to say that as soon as we have word that a company is abusing its workers we should end a contract.  This is what the policy calls a “cut and run” strategy and it is true that it does not always achieve “victory”.  Victory should always be seen as the workers’ getting what they deserve; fair wages and the right to organize.  But at some point you have to “cut and run” in order for your negotiation to be taken seriously in later disputes.  The question is whether we’ve reached that point.  With a University that continues to refuse to take immediate action, despite the new situation in the country, we have little hope of using our economic weight to influence how Russell runs its operations.  The company appears to have shown no meaningful steps at remediation in two years of discussion with the WRC and the Honduran union.  If the company can be convinced that it will lose its customers by backing coups and treating its workers like garbage, then, and only then, will it change its practices.  The University’s committee is now waiting for the WRC report that is due by the end of this month before they decide what the next step should be.  It’s up to us to make sure that the proper action is taken.


While the discussion process between the WRC, Russell Apparel and the University of Guelph has been going on, 101 universities worldwide have boycotted Russell Apparel, two of which are Canadian universities (McMaster and Queen’s). Students have taken an internationalist stance against the unethical practices of Russell Apparel. It is clear that long processes of consideration and consultation with companies like Russell Apparel can only take us so far. Next time you go into a store, think twice about what you are about to buy and realize the positive outcomes that come from being an informed and responsible shopper.  And while individual boycotts are important, we can speak louder collectively.  It is time for us as students to demand that the University of Guelph take a closer look at where its money is flowing and more importantly how to implement its policy effectively.  It is time that we join in the largest collegiate boycott in history, with those 101 other campuses that have chosen to stand up for decent wages, workers’ rights and democracy.


1 Comment

  1. You ask a lot of great questions. The university movement is doing some pretty amazing things standing in solidarity with workers in Honduras. The toughest question is how much do we push?

    If we push too much the workers could lose their jobs. And regardless of how bad that job is, they might not have a better option.

    Surely Guelph will follow suit. 101 universities can’t be wrong.

    Good luck!


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