Fruit of the Loom, the parent company of Russell Athletic, and the SITRAJERZEES union are making unparalleled strides towards protecting the rights of workers who sew university apparel. For years USAS has challenged multinational apparel brands to take up a new model: make a long-term commitment to maintaining stable orders at unionized factories where workers have a voice and can negotiate wages to provide for their families. Since 2009, Fruit of the Loom, a major producer of college-logo apparel, has taken significant steps towards doing just that.
This time three years ago, top executives from Fruit of the Loom were deep into historic negotiations with leaders of the SITRAJERZEES union, representing Fruit of the Loom factory workers in Honduras. By November, the workers signed a precedent-shattering agreement with the Kentucky-based multinational apparel manufacturer, with the company agreeing to recognize its workers’ union at the new Jerzees Nuevo Día factory and to adopt union access and neutrality at all of its Honduran plants — a significant commitment in a fiercely anti-union garment industry.
Three years later, Jerzees Nuevo Día is one of the world’s only garment factories that enjoys stable orders from a multinational apparel brand and fully complies with universities’ labor codes of conduct. At Nuevo Día, Fruit of the Loom and the union negotiated one of the strongest collective bargaining agreements in the global apparel industry that guarantees investment in better machinery, free transportation to and from work, free lunches and major wage increases. When the contract was signed in May of 2011, production workers received a raise of 19.5%, followed by a raise of 7% on January 1, 2012; and this month they will negotiate yet another raise for January 1, 2013.
Progress has reached far beyond the Nuevo Día. Earlier this year, workers formed a union at another factory making college apparel for the company, called Jerzees Buena Vista. Management quickly recognized the union and will begin negotiating a collective bargaining agreement on October 19. In other Fruit of the Loom factories, a bipartite Oversight Committee set up by the 2009 agreement is conducting trainings on freedom of association with workers and the full cooperation of management, along with the CGT union federation and Ombudsperson Lance Compa, Cornell University labor studies professor.
While other companies have insisted it’s simply not possible or too complicated to respect workers’ rights in the global apparel industry, Fruit of the Loom’s model in Honduras proves that profit doesn’t have to come at the expense of sweatshop abuse and repressing workers’ right to unionize.
Still, Honduran workers face significant struggles to achieving fair working conditions, with the company’s notorious competitors — Gildan, Hanes, Nike and Adidas — driving a very different model, a vicious race to the bottom, squeezing its suppliers to pay workers less and less.
Since 2009, USAS has worked with universities to award new licensing contracts to Fruit of the Loom, in order to support the historic progress underway in Honduras. We look forward to the day when every Fruit facility in Honduras produces university sportswear under the labor conditions aspired to in universities’ comprehensive anti-sweatshop initiative, the Designated Suppliers Program. Given what Fruit and SITRAJERZEES have accomplished already, this day is likely not far off.