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Sweat Shop Workers Tour US Colleges That Sell Their Products

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"It would take half our salary to buy one of the sweat shirts we produce," Josefina Hernandez Ponce told students at the University of Virginia on Wednesday night. The classroom was packed to capacity with students in every seat and squeezed in on the floor.

A flyer passed around showed where the $39.99 paid for a UVA sweatshirt goes ($2.40 in royalties to the university, $0.20 in pay to the workers who made it).

But that familiar story wasn't all that Hernandez Ponce and fellow worker Joaquin Alas Salguero had come to talk about. Theirs are stories of success. They work in factories in Mexico and El Salvador that have unionized and won worker rights and higher pay and benefits with help from the activism of US students.

But those victories, combined with the shifting requirements of "free trade" agreements, are driving business to more abusive factories and nations. These workers are asking students and other Americans to help them stay employed.

United Students Against Sweatshops has organized a tour of college campuses for the workers. Some of the colleges they're visiting are on the list of 151 that have joined the Workers Rights Consortium http://www.workersrights.org an independent non-profit that monitors working conditions in factories.

Others, including UVA, have joined a corporate-dominated substitute called the Fair Labor Association. UVA is paying 1 percent of its licensing fees, through the FLA, to companies to monitor themselves, and is doing so even though the FLA has given its approval to companies engaging in the most abusive practices.

So, the chief goal of student activists at the University of Virginia is persuading the administration to switch from the FLA to the WRC.

The students seemed motivated to do so after hearing the stories of what life is like for the people who produce their shirts.
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Josefina Hernandez Ponce is a worker and union leader from the Mex Mode factory (formerly Kukdong) in Puebla, Mexico.

Photo of Josefina Hernandez Ponce

Audio of Josefina Hernandez Ponce with translation by Allie Robins of USAS

Hernandez Ponce said that when companies come to what they call third-world countries, the governments there, including hers in Mexico, do not require that they obey the nation's labor laws.
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"We began to organize because our rights were being violated, including physical and verbal abuse," she said. "And we felt a lot of pressure not to organize, including from the government.

"But we had the support of international organizations, of the people for whom we were sewing the sweatshirts, some of whom could be the future owners of the factory or of the shirt company ...and also of the AFL-CIO, the Campaign for Labor Rights, and the Workers Rights Consortium, which monitored our factories."

In the past five years, Hernandez Ponce said, they have achieved annual salary increases. Pay used to be $30 per week and is now a minimum of $60 and as high as $180 per week. No longer are workers tested for pregnancy and denied work if they are pregnant. Pregnant workers are permitted to sit or stand and to take breaks. This is not the case, she said, at any other factory in Mexico.

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David Swanson is the author of "When the World Outlawed War," "War Is A Lie" and "Daybreak: Undoing the Imperial Presidency and Forming a More Perfect Union." He blogs at http://davidswanson.org and http://warisacrime.org and works for the online (more...)

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