One of the first things I was told when I announced that I planned to attend the University of St. Thomas was to not buy a t-shirt. Friends who were older and attending school here explained that it was not necessary due to the amount of free t-shirts given out at events, and I would soon discover that they were right.
Free t-shirts seem to be a staple at every campus sponsored event. If an event is giving out free t-shirts, the word spreads like the bubonic plague, and in a matter of minutes, there’s 50 people lined up, anxious to claim another shirt for their collection. I distinctly remember a statistic in a campus brochure that stated that the average student obtains 21 free t-shirts a year. That’s a lot of t-shirts.
Have you ever asked yourself where these t-shirts are coming from? Perhaps wondered whose hands have contributed to their existence? My peers and I have, and in an effort to be a more conscious consumer, I began to research the origin of this free apparel. What I found was shocking.
I began researching by taking a trip to my closet. I took an inventory of the names on the tags, and the name that consistently popped up was Gildan®, so I decided to look into exactly the sort of company Gildan® is.
Gildan® is an apparel company based out of Canada. According to their website, they are “the largest suppliers of branded athletic, casual and dress socks for a broad spectrum of retailers in the U.S.” They sell their products under the names of Gildan®, Gold Toe®, and Anvil®. They also work with popular brands like Under Armour® and New Balance®. Gildan’s factories are primarily located in the Caribbean and Central America. They have two factories in Haiti, the Premiere factory and the Genesis factory. Through my research, I discovered that these factories were home to terrible workers’ rights abuses. I am about to throw a lot of facts and numbers at you, so bear with me. These facts deserve our time, care, and attention – just as these workers do.
According to a report released late last year by the Workers’ Rights Consortium titled “Stealing From the Poor: Wage Theft in the Haitian Apparel Industry”, the Premium factory employs 1,114 workers. These workers are required to produce 3,600 t-shirts a day in order to receive the legal minimum wage of 300 Haitian Gourdes (HTG) for 8 hours of work. That minimum wage of 300HTG/8 hours breaks down to an hourly wage of $0.95. Of these 1,114 workers, only 3 percent actually receive this minimum wage for their regular hours.
The Workers’ Rights Consortium also explored the conditions of the Genesis factory. At the Genesis factory, roughly 1,160 workers are employed. The workers report that they are paid 6HTG (or $0.13) for every box of 6-dozen t-shirts they produce. In order to reach the minimum wage of 300HTG, workers must produce 3,600 t-shirts in a single 8-hour work shift. The workers explained that this is impossible. On average, the employees make 239HTG each day (or $0.69/hour).
Employees at both factories are often pressured into working more hours off-the-clock in order to keep up with the high demand for apparel. Fearing that they may lose their jobs, the workers comply. At each factory, employees work about 10 hours on average, and each day, they are robbed of wages. On average the wages legally owed to a worker each day lies between $9 and $10.
In order to truly understand how this wage robbery affects the lives of our brothers and sisters in Haiti, let’s take a look at the average monthly cost of living.
The Workers’ Rights Consortium estimated that to survive and thrive in Haiti, each month a person must have the equivalent of $200.56. This takes into account housing and energy, nutrition, clothing, health care, education, and transportation to work. $200.56 is the estimated cost of one’s most basic needs in Haiti. Based on the average hours worked and the average wage earned, I calculate that an employee at the Genesis factory owned by Gildan® would only make $190.20/month (Side note: This was probably the most math I have done since I failed calculus my freshman year.). This means that the average Gildan® factory worker is not making enough to provide for their basic needs and the needs of his/her family.
The hands that make our free t-shirts belong to people who are disregarded as humans with needs and hopes and dreams and instead used as tools to increase profits. I do not know about you, but I find this terribly unsettling.
What I find even more unsettling is that the university I attend is monetarily supporting a company that disregards the basic dignity of beings. Is this not in clear vitiation of Catholic social teaching? Pope Leo XIII declares that taking advantage of someone’s desperation for the sake of profit is reprehensible in Rerum Novarum: “…wealthy owners and all masters of labor should be mindful of this – that to exercise pressure upon the indigent and the destitute for the sake of gain, and to gather one’s profit out of the need of another, is condemned by all laws, human and divine. To defraud any one of wages that are his due is a great crime which cries to the avenging anger of Heaven.” Gildan® commits this great crime daily.
By supporting a company like Gildan®, we are perpetuating global poverty.
It is that simple. We here at the University of St. Thomas are very privileged, and part of being privileged is having choices when we purchase things- things like t-shirts for example.
I, along with the members of Students for Justice and Peace, and hopefully all of you who are currently reading this, am asking this institution to start really looking at the external costs of our purchases. If we feel it is necessary to make sure each student has 21 free t-shirts a year, fine. But, let’s make certain those t-shirts aren’t the product of slave labor.
I know this information can be overwhelming. An unfortunate fact of the world we live in is that some form of injustice surrounds most everything. However, this does not mean that this is the way it has to be. The University of St. Thomas has an opportunity to be part of the solution, just as you do too! A good beginning step in the right direction would be to give clubs and organizations the option to use their allotted funds to order their shirts through a Fair Trade vendor
As a Catholic institution and one that aims to work to “advance the common good,” we have an institutional responsibility to consciously consume. We made steps towards progress this semester by replacing Starbucks® coffee with more ethical and sustainable Fair Trade options, but we have a long ways to go, and getting there requires all of our efforts!
If you would like to get more involved, please reach out and contact administration, educate your friends, and/or get in contact with Students for Justice and Peace by sending an email to firstname.lastname@example.org!
As His Holliness the Dalai Lama said during his speech at the Nobel Peace Prize Forum, “There is the possibility to be a more peaceful world, a happier world. Therefore, we need tireless effort.”
Claire Winzenburg and Students for Justice and Peace