The students walked along a mud path cut into a hillside so steep that a boy had recently slipped and died in the fall. They entered a home that could barely accommodate their number, 16. They offered up bags of fried chicken, knowing that their hostess often had to decide what time of day her kids would get their only meal: morning or night.
As they ate together, they heard about the kinds of conditions that workers like their hostess, who was part of a garmentworker's union, spent their days in.
No bathroom breaks. Work quotas that, when not met, meant unpaid overtime. Stool unions. Armed guards stationed outside the factories who turned away government inspectors. Blank sheets of paper they must sign, upon which the boss, later, may write what concessions he pleases.
This was the reality of sewing apparel in Guatemala, said she and others the students met with in the course of one week of in-country research. The UW's Jackson School of International Studies had sent 16 seniors and their professor to the country for direct, dispassionate observation.
Their mission: complete their senior project by writing up a policy paper for the university, suggesting ways that the university might more readily hold the corporations licensed to make Husky apparel to fair labor standards.
Associate professor Angelina Godoy took her students to the country to make their subject, foreign policy, more concrete.
"The university is engaged in this [form of policymaking] every day," she says.
"We decided to make Mark Emmert," UW President, "the policymaker to present to."
And by implicating the university's licensees during their one-week stay, the students' report began to take the form of a campaign -- one that's been taken up by student activists and even the administration.
At issue is the UW's license deal with Gear For Sports, a subsidiary of Champion brand clothing.
Gear For Sports makes and sells clothing emblazoned with school colors and tagged with the Champion logo. Last fall, it made clothing at a Guatemala City factory named Estofel where more than 1,000 workers were abruptly locked in without food or water until they signed blank sheets of paper. They were told they were being fired, and they'd get half of what they were due under Guatemalan labor law. After they signed, they only got 20 percent; the names of those who'd tried to call in a lawyer were put on a nationwide computer database factory managers use to refuse work to perceived agitators -- in other words, they were blacklisted.
Godoy alerted university staff while she was still in the country, then, in March, flew to Texas with Trademarks and Licensing director Kathy Hoggan to present the information to two industry monitoring agencies, the Worker Rights Consortium and the Fair Labor Administration.
Talks with the Singaporean owners of the Estofel factory began; they have offered to pay some part of the owed compensation, says Hoggan.
And while the university has been criticized by the campus Student Labor Action Project for extending its contract with Gear For Sports over the summer, Hoggan says it was the right thing to do.
"Our link to this case has been very tenuous" -- the UW maintains that no Husky apparel was manufactured at the factory, since Gear For Sports used it very little -- "but we have been providing fuel to keep it moving forward," says Hoggan.
"If we were to have severed that relationship, it's my opinion that this would have been dropped."
SLAP disagrees. In a Sept. 4 protest outside Hoggan's office, student Ashley Edens read a statement calling on Emmert to terminate the licensing agreement immediately and "recognize that 'engaging' brands on their own terms has resulted in nothing but smokescreens and backsliding."
Administrators may be approaching that position: the UW communications office drafted a press release Sept. 5 that stated that the licensing agreement was suspended. The press release was never sent out, and Hoggan stated Sept. 9 that the contract was still in force: "Conversations are ensuing and indicate it is best for the UW and Estofel workers if we do not pull our Gear For Sports license at this time."
The story of the shutdown at the Estofel factory was told in hushed tones to the students in a grassy field near a mall in Guatemala City, the only place labor representatives felt comfortable with the disclosure. That sort of fear is typical in the country, which still suffers the aftershocks of the civil war that ended in 1996 -- the kind of unrest, says student and report co-author Alyson McLean, that resulted in the deaths of 200,000 in a systematic genocide that targeted people of the same indigenous background as those now working in the garment factories.
McLean and Martina Kartman hope that Emmert takes a long look at their report, which not only uncovered the situation at the Estofel factory but dug down into the murky world of garment manufacturing to show how hard it is to ensure labor rights in an atomized, globalized, profit-oriented system of licensees and subcontractors.
Still, monitoring factories might be simpler than it appears, says Kartman, since within a week in a foreign country, 16 students "could find out things and corroborate them."
Godoy emphasizes that her students' report is theirs alone. But, she says, "I'm very disappointed by how the owners of the Estofel facility have reacted" she says. "There's no debate about the fact that those [labor] codes were violated."
And the buck has to stop somewhere. "If the owners can't live up" to the university's code of conduct, she says, "it falls to the brands."