Labor unstitched: from El Salvador to Tempe

ASU distanced itself from an organization using sweatshop labor

Unpaid and abused labor in the developing world makes it cheaper for universities to sell branded children’s apparel, but ASU recently suspended ties with one such unethical provider. 

Salvadorian retail company Konffetty, which was found to engage in abusive labor practices, produces children’s clothing with Division I university brand icons. National labor activists say ASU is one of the first major universities to suspend licensing ties with Konffetty.

The United Students Against Sweatshops Local 85, one chapter of a national labor rights organization, brought the issue to ASU’s attention. The group presented to President Michael Crow a Worker’s Rights Consortium investigation into Konffetty.

Nicole Sohn, a philosophy junior and the president of USAS, said the process to halt the partnership was straightforward. 

“We delivered a letter to Michael Crow’s office, and a couple weeks later we got a response saying that they (the University) were cutting ties with them because they violated every single one of the University’s labor codes of conduct,” Sohn said. 

The WRC released in 2017 an investigative report exposing Konffetty’s labor practices after it received a complaint from a Salvadorian women’s rights group, Mujeres Transformando. The complaint stated the company was in violation of labor and minimum wage laws in El Salvador.  

Although ASU does not have a direct relationship with Konffetty, the University formerly had a brand agreement with Miami-based clothing company Vive Le Fete, whose sole product supplier is Konffetty. 

“The WRC continues to urge VLF and Konffetty-RHLA to engage cooperatively and in good faith with the WRC and with Mujeres Transformando, as an advocate for the rights and welfare of the homeworkers,” the WRC report said. 

“Such a constructive approach is a clear necessity if VLF, as a licensee, and Konffetty-RHLA, as its supplier, are to come into compliance with university codes of conduct.”

In a letter from Sept. 27, 2018, to the ASU chapter of USAS, Associate Vice President of University Business Services Nichol Luoma wrote, “We have requested that IMG College Licensing advise Vive Le Fete (that) we will be suspending any product or artwork approvals until further notice.” 

IMG College Licensing handles ASU’s brand agreements with the various companies that use the school’s logos and icons. The University requires the companies that produce licensed products to follow the school's Fair Labor Philosophy and Code of Conduct, according to Luoma in the letter.  

An ASU spokesperson said, regarding the University's present relationship with Vive Le Fete, “IMG College Licensing disclosed that Vive Le Fete and Worker Rights Consortium (WRC) met Oct. 24, 2018 and had a productive discussion. As an ASU affiliate, the WRC is expected to send official communications directly to ASU when there are updates.”

The city of Apopa, where Konfetty is based, is positioned just north of the El Salvador’s capital San Salvador, not far from the Pacific coast. A little over 150,000 people live in Apopa, and the city is saddled with poverty and gang violence, as evident by numerous news reports and Apopa’s proximity to the infamously dangerous nearby capital city. 

According to the WRC report, there is a group of women embroiderers in Apopa being paid one-third the national required minimum wage. They are forced to work overtime and deceptively led to sign contracts agreeing to this treatment. 

Konfetty drafts mostly women homebodies for labor, meaning these women work almost exclusively from their houses embroidering collegiate brands and other icons onto children’s clothes. 

Many of these workers have alleged to Mujeres Transformando and the WRC that they are not receiving El Salvador’s national minimum wage for their labor. 

A number of universities nationwide have indirectly partnered with Konffetty, including ASU. 

Many other U.S. universities with prominent athletics programs still maintain branding agreements with Vive Le Fete, including Baylor University, Florida State University and the University of Arizona. 

The WRC report found that Konffetty and Vive Le Fete were established and are operated by members of the same Salvadorian family. The companies “maintain significant elements of shared management and assets,” according to the report. 

The WRC investigation also revealed that Konffetty only pays its workers 41 cents per hour, one-third of El Salvador’s $1.23 per hour minimum wage. 

Konffetty assigns its workers an impossible amount of tasks to complete in the duration of time the company demands, according to the investigation. This has made for long shifts and unpaid overtime. 

The report also presented workers’ allegations of an abusive power dynamic between Konffetty’s management and the laborers.

“Homeworkers added that the Konffetty-RHLA representative also frequently yelled at them, called them mules, and told them that they ‘can’t do anything right’ and that their work is ‘just a waste of time …,’” according to the report. 

“The Konffetty-RHLA representative’s verbal abuse of homeworkers represents a violation of both Salvadoran law and university codes of conduct.”

The Konffetty representative, according to the WRC, threatened laborers who spoke with representatives of Mujeres Transformando.

The investigation concludes with recommendations for correcting Konffetty’s labor practices and, moving forward, what is expected of VLF as a business partner to the former. 

While the suspension of ASU’s partnership with Vive Le Fete was progress for the USAS, it still is pushing ASU to become more firmly fair trade when it comes to what companies it buys its apparel from. 

Ana Jimenez, the director of international solidarity campaigns at USAS, said popular clothing brands often have underlying labor condition issues. 

“Workers on the ground who know of USAS work are calling on students to stand in solidarity with them and to organize alongside them,” Jimenez said. “They recognize that students ultimately have power on campus through the financial relationships they have with the university.”

USAS, which has clubs on over 150 college campuses, aims to consistently hold universities accountable in terms of who they buy apparel from, Sohn said. 

Sohn also said the group aims to not only investigate and end current university relations with companies that practice unfair labor laws but to be advocates for the working class.

“Our purpose is to work in solidarity with working people and their struggles,” Sohn said. “Our goal is to build a grassroots student movement that challenges corporate power so we can fight for economic justice.” 


Reach the reporters at parker.shea@asu.edu & mmbarbe3@asu.edu or follow @laconicshamanic & @meganbarbera on Twitter. 

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