UW News

April 3, 2008

Task Force students investigate college apparel industry in Guatemala

The Guatemalan woman feared talking with the professor and her students. A single mother, she knew that if a factory boss learned she had talked with investigators or reporters, she’d not only be fired but blacklisted and prevented from getting another factory job. Nevertheless, she talked.

That same week in February, another factory worker allowed the professor and her students to visit her tiny house, where they learned that she and her co-workers had been forced to work overtime without pay, that they’d been denied a bonus owed them and that the possibility of a union is only a dream — and likely to remain so.

The factory is one of scores in Guatemala, not to mention thousands around the world, that make collegiate apparel, clothing with university logos.

The students were UW seniors, and the professor was Angelina Snodgrass Godoy, one of 22 professors who teach Task Force courses in the Jackson School of International Studies.

This year, the Jackson School is marking 25 years of such courses, which influence UW students long after they have graduated.

“In 10 weeks of intense study, Task Force students apply what they’ve learned in a classroom to a real-world situation. They go from not knowing much about a subject to becoming passionate about it,” said Anand Yang, director of the Jackson School. At the end of winter quarter, two student leaders of his task force presented their report on U.S. policy toward South Asia to Richard Boucher, assistant secretary of state for South Asia Affairs.

Meetings with high-level experts are an integral part of Task Force seminars, which are required of all seniors majoring in international studies. The winter quarter just past included 114 students in seven task force seminars.

Godoy’s was unusual, however, in that it was open to both Jackson School students and those in the Law, Society and Justice program. University sources provided most of the money necessary for the eight-day trip to Guatemala, but students were also asked to supply about $1,000 apiece, which included their airfare.

Godoy’s students are unique in having conducted firsthand Task Force research in a foreign country.

Also, it wasn’t easy to be admitted to the course, and the work was complicated. Godoy, a professor in the Law, Societies & Justice Program who has researched human rights in Guatemala for 12 years, chose members of the class in a competitive process.

Once they were in, however, and before the course actually began, the students were asked to study books, articles and Web sites on labor rights. Later, they interviewed more than a dozen people — manufacturers of UW apparel, labor rights experts, staff members in relevant nongovernmental organizations, people in UW Trademarks and Licensing.

In mid-March, the 16 members of the class (aka Socially Responsible Apparel Purchasing) presented their findings to UW President Mark Emmert in a 63-page report and a 75-minute session in the UW Regents Room.

At the session with Emmert, task force members outlined conditions at four Guatemalan factories, information gained in talks with a number of workers and at least one supervisor.

On one Saturday, a worker told them, she and her fellow workers put in four hours in the morning but were then required to continue through the afternoon. As it turned out, they were required to work until 5:30 the following morning — with no breaks after 8:30 p.m. And they weren’t paid for any time after noon Saturday.

In another factory that was shutting down and moving, workers were trapped in the sun all day, until they signed papers agreeing to 50 percent of promised severance pay, which according to their telling, eventually wound up 20 percent.

The general manager of one of the four factories denied serious problems, intimating that if workers didn’t want to cooperate, his factory would leave.

Emmert asked the students whether they had studied macroeconomic impacts of such factories. Student Chris Moore answered that in Central America, Guatemala has become “an economic powerhouse,” driven largely by factories such as those the students visited.

Lack of government will to improve worker conditions, coupled with intense price competition among manufacturers, makes it extremely difficult to improve sweatshop conditions, student presenters also said.

Nevertheless, they asked Emmert to pressure apparel licensees to pressure their manufacturers.

Emmert said the UW and other universities are uniting to exert such pressure. They are also collaborating with nonprofits such as the Worker Rights Consortium and the Fair Labor Association. Additionally, Emmert has authorized funds for an undergraduate to work with the UW Licensing Advisory Committee on its efforts to change worker conditions.

“I really believe students can do valuable research and that their work can change things at the University,” Godoy said.

Several students called Task Force the most important course for them at the University. Speaking to Emmert, Moore said, “It was the most I’ve ever learned in a course. This work has been the best thing I’ve ever done at the UW.”

Jackson School graduates celebrate 25 years of Task Force courses

Some 400 UW graduates who took Task Force courses showed up at UW on March 14 for a dinner marking 25 years of such seminars. Along with reminiscing about team effort, a number of them said they learned what it means to gather and analyze large amounts of information.

In 1987, Rick Meade was part of a Task Force on the Strategic Defense Initiative, the Reagan administration’s plan for ground and space-based missile defense. After graduation, Meade worked in Navy intelligence, NATO reconnaissance and air operations for Kosovo. Several years ago, he was offered a senior civilian job at the Pentagon but decided Seattle offered a more balanced life, so took a job as a product manager for REI, the outdoor equipment company based in Kent. The Task Force experience continues to influence him. He said it “has taught me about vision, innovation and creative problem solving.”

Kara Condon was part of a 1995 Task Force on Russia and newly independent states nearby, such as Ukraine and Belarus. At the Task Force dinner, Condon recalled learning teamwork, that her group became The Comrades. Internships and mentors later helped Condon land work with the European Parliament, and from there she moved to SWIFT, the international financial messaging co-operative. Both groups are in Brussels, where Condon lives with her Belgian husband.

Julie Barrett of Seattle was in one of the first Task Force courses back in 1983. Her group reported on nuclear weapons proliferation. Today, Barrett is an attorney and at-home mother. When she returns to an outside job, she wants to work in public policy. “I think the School of International Studies program is amazing. It offers as good an education as you can get anywhere — and the Task Force courses are a great part of it.”