Just DON'T Do It

Wednesday, October 4, 2006

Written by Greg Beneteau

Every year there seems to be at least one contentious issue between student groups and either university administrators or directors of U of G ancillary units. Last year it was between the CSA and Hospitality Services over false advertising and overstated savings claims on meal plans amounting to millions of dollars of withheld savings over a 6 year period. In previous years it has focused on who has authority over the University Centre. Disputes focused on the legal interpretation of a 1970s settlement between the CSA and the university resulting from a major lawsuit. This year, the issue promises to be a new contract between the Athletics Department and a company called T. Litzen – Canada’s distributor of Nike apparel.

This year, varsity athletes are being told that they must purchase a “package” of Nike brand athletic gear in order to play on their respective teams and meet the “dress code”. Failure to comply with this dress code will have consequences that each team sets out individually, and can include suspension from play.

The cost of this Nike package runs as high as $155 per student (amount varies among teams). Students will either have to pay out of their own pocket, or host fundraising activities. One varsity athlete who wished to remain anonymous asked: “Where is this money going? It certainly isn’t going to the athletes because we still have to pay our varsity fees.” This person went on to comment on how certain suppliers – such a Nike – don’t even carry apparel that is suitable for their sport.

Nike’s main distributor in Canada is called T. Litzen (the company named in the contract in question). Thecannon.ca’s anonymous source said it appeared that athletes were being kept in the dark about the option of other apparel suppliers through T. Litzen. Students were not informed and had no choice in the matter whereas coaches and the department of athletics were quite versed in the terms of the contract.

No students so far have been offered a choice of which clothing company they can purchase from. They were simply asked for their sizes and money. As the teams become more familiar with the terms of the contract, they are exploring potential ways to bring other supplier’s products in.

Concerns were raised by students about the signing of this contract over the summer months. Student groups have objected to other decisions made over the summer that affect them by university administrators. One example is the installation of an ink cartridge vending machine in the UC courtyard that impacts on a CSA service. It is suspected that the summer is sometimes used to sign controversial contracts or implement new programs that students might question because it is during this time that committees stop meeting and the process of executive empowerment takes over.

Several students have now come forward and objected to what they see as a contract that goes too far. Some of the concerns raised include Nike’s history of human rights abuses at their factories around the world, and the issue of being required to wear clothing from a certain company that many take issue with. Guelph athlete Yolanda Lloyd says “many athletes are proud to publicly represent their team and Guelph in the form of embroidered clothing, but say they don’t want to be a billboard for a global apparel giant.”

One U of G student and varsity athlete, Sarah Long, raised objection to being required to wear Nike clothing. She was eventually granted an exemption, but this is not something that is being openly offered to other students and is only granted under certain circumstances. Long says “In a team environment not fitting in or conforming to team rules could not only have formal penalties but also alienation from the team…I have taken a stand against sweatshop labour for many years and promote and buy fair trade products.” She went on to say: "I am not buying or wearing anything from Nike nor do I wish to be bullied into thinking I'm not a team player for this." Long says that in previous years the athletic apparel was purchased from smaller “family/friend owned” businesses or a local store in Guelph.

Sarah Long, working in collaboration with the CSA, is now requesting to see the details of this new contract. This request is similar to previous requests by the CSA to obtain a copy of the contract between the university and Coca-Cola. With the Coke contract, there were years of campaigns, speakers and demonstrations but the university staunchly refused to release the contract. This all changed in the winter semester of last year when the university finally decided to release an edited version of the Coke contract. It is presumed that the only reason they did this was because universities have now come under Freedom of Information and student groups can now legally gain access to certain documents upon formal request. It is suspected that the Coke contract was released to avoid students obtaining it legally via Freedom of Information requests and embarrassing the university for withholding what should be public. Although students have asked to see the contract relating to Nike apparel, nothing has been released to date. Sarah Long and the CSA will continue to request it from the university via internal channels, but say they will resort to a formal Freedom of Information request if they have to.

Aside from issues of being required to wear clothing from a large private company to participate in varsity sports, there are genuine concerns about the history and current status of Nike’s labour practices in their assembly facilities. The global apparel industry is plagued with widespread use of so-called “sweatshop” labour, and Nike has not been immune. While it is true that in recent years Nike has gone beyond many other apparel giants to disclose the location of their overseas factories, many still have concerns.

Thecannon.ca asked the Director of Athletics Tom Kendall if any research was conducted into the current status of Nike’s labour practices before signing the contract, or if the University of Guelph’s Code of Conduct committee was consulted. (The Code of Conduct is the U of G’s anti-sweatshop policy). Kendall said that there was no consultation with the Code committee because it is not mandatory at this point, and eluded to Nike’s self-reporting on the issue by saying “Nike has gone to great lengths to document changes that it has made in its labor practices.” But this is not satisfactory to some students. Bre Walt, the CSA’s Local Affairs Commissioner said “it’s like asking the RCMP to investigate itself on the issue of Maher Arar – they simply omit areas where they are open to public scrutiny. That’s how big business and their public relations departments operate. It’s no secret and those within the university community should know this and be wary of such claims.”

Both Long and Walt then suggested consulting a recent report by the Toronto-based group Maquila Solidarity Network (MSN). MSN reviewed Nike’s Corporate Responsibility Report (available on the Nike website) and concluded that it “fails to acknowledge that the company has a responsibility to ensure that workers receive wages that meet their basic needs by local standards. The report skirts the living wage issue, focusing instead on increased productivity as the solution to the problem.” The report also contained criticisms about transparency, saying: “Reporting on the findings of internal monitoring by geographic region doesn't allow for evaluation of progress made at the country or factory level.”

Walt and Long feel that since students are ultimately the ones wearing the clothing, they should have some input into contracts that ultimately affect them. When asked if students were consulted before this contract was signed, Athletics Director Tom Kendall said that students were not consulted this time, and suggested that they should not be consulted in future.

When asked if this incident has changed Long’s view about U of G priorities, she replied: “One of the [athletic] department’s goals is to grow its’ athletes into involved community members now and when we graduate. Going with a contract that involves Nike is ignoring the communities around the world who are affected by our fashion choices. We must realize how much we impact these communities with our life style choices. Within our own community and university we can start making choices now that will help benefit other communities in a long-term perspective. Fair trade is an option I feel could be a very excellent start, one that will help benefit many members of many communities.”

| More
Bookstore First Year