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OSU, Students Take Up Sweatshop Allegations

Later today, members of the Ohio State chapter of United Students Against Sweatshops will be talking with university administrators. Last week, they were singing and chanting. http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=0fx8E0FQng8 The students were protesting because they're worried some of those so-called sweatshop sweatshirts could soon carry the Ohio State name and logo. Right now OSU contracts with dozens of companies that make and sell Ohio State apparel. The school is considering cutting its apparel deals to just two. One would stay with Nike, which makes all Buckeye team uniforms. A leading candidate for the other is Silver Star, an emerging apparel company owned by the Dallas Cowboys. That's the problem, says Natalie Yoon. She leads the OSU chapter of United Students Against Sweatshops. "Multiple third-party labor rights organizations have given reports about the Cowboys and that they produce apparel in sweatshop factories around the world," Yoon says. Two of those reports came from the Fair Labor Association and the Workers Rights Consortium, organizations in which Ohio State boasts membership. Scott Nova directs the Workers Rights Consortium. He says the Cowboys were among the three main clients of an apparel factory in Indonesia where the owner stiffed employees out of $3 million in wages and fled the country. "Well Nike agreed to pay about a half-million dollars and also persuaded another company that was involved at the factory as an agent to pay another million. To date neither Adidas nor the Cowboys have taken any action," Nova says. Another group that's been tough on the Cowboys is the Institute for Global Labour and Human Rights. Director Charles Kernaghan says he's found violations at several factories that do business with the Cowboys, including the Chi Fung plant in El Salvador. "They were making $80 Cowboy jerseys at this factory in Chi Fung," Kernaghan says. "The workers were paid 10 cents for every jersey they made, which amounts to about one-tenth of one percent of the cost of the jersey. Miserable sweatshop, very low wages, no rights what so ever, right across the board." Owners of Chi Fung have denied the allegations. Other companies working with the factory, including Adidas and Reebok, found many of the claims to be true and demanded retro pay and better conditions for workers. The Cowboys didn't respond to requests for comment about this story. Executives recently told the New York Times they, like many other businesses, sometimes unknowingly do business with shady factories, but they take social responsibilities seriously, and have an aggressive code of conduct for all factories representing their brand. Ohio State also declined an interview about its possible deal with Silver Star, but in a statement the school acknowledges talking with several companies, including Silver Star, about streamlining apparel deals. Shashi Matta is a marketing professor at OSU's Fisher College of Business. He says in the cut-throat $300 billion industry of sports apparel, forming an alliance with a single vendor has its benefits. "Both for the vendor and the firm that's sourcing, because there's greater leverage and greater discounts they can offer each other," Matta says. How Ohio State finds that one vendor has also become a concern. State law requires a bidding process, but Natalie Yoon with the United Students Against Sweatshops says it's been rigged to favor Silver Star. "Because through a public records request, we have uncovered email between Rick Van Brimmer, our head of marketing and licensing, and Bill Priakos, the COO at the Dallas Cowboys, and we found that this bidding process has been rigged and Ohio State has been planning to give this exclusive-licensing contract to the Dallas Cowboys," Yoon says. Those emails purport to show Van Brimmer telling Priakos that OSU may be forced to look into other "bids" - quotation marks from Van Brimmer - but they shouldn't fear that process. He ends the email by telling Priakos to rest easy. OSU declined to make Van Brimmer available for comment.