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Whitmore wonders if sweatshops, social thought mix

Kaitlynn Reilly | Monday, November 14, 2005

When professor Todd Whitmore asked his class if they believed the University of Notre Dame was a brand, 76 percent replied they strongly agreed, 24 percent agreed and no one disagreed.

Whitmore says the abundance of Notre Dame goods available, such as rawhide bones inscribed with the Notre Dame logo and can openers that sing the fight song, contribute to a growing consumer culture surrounding Notre Dame. Ken Shanzer, the president of NBC Sports, described the contract between NBC and Notre Dame as “a great linkage of brands.”

Whitmore, an associate professor of theology and the director of the Program in Catholic Social Teaching, presented a lecture entitled “Catholic Social Teaching, Notre Dame Sports Apparel and the Problem of Sweatshops” as part of a three-day conference held in McKenna Hall Nov. 10 to 12 on “Catholic Identity and the Role of Sport.”

Whitmore serves on a sweatshop task force started by University President Emeritus Father Edward Malloy to ensure ethical labor practices by licensees of the University. Notre Dame requires all licensees to reveal where each of its factories are located and to adhere to the labor codes and the principles of Catholic social teaching.

According to Whitmore, Notre Dame expects its licensees to follow the codes of conduct dictated by the Fair Labor Association (FLA) and the Worker’s Rights Consortium (WRC). These codes prohibit forced labor, child labor, harassment and discrimination and require the maintenance of certain health and safety standards and freedom of association.

Whitmore described the poor working conditions for a sweatshop in Lesotho, a country in Africa, but also mentioned the presence of sweatshops in the U.S. Under the Department of Labor’s definition of a sweatshop as any factory that violates more than one of the fundamental U.S. labor laws, two-thirds of the garment factories in Los Angeles, Calif., would fall into that category, he said.

Whitmore said Kinko’s, which recently entered into a contract with Notre Dame, has violated some labor ethics by engaging in the practice of electronic deduction of hours. The managers tell workers to clock out, and then require them to stay for two hours to clean up.

Much of Whitmore’s lecture focused on Notre Dame licensee Adidas. Adidas is a signatory to the Fair Labor Association, and Whitmore has found the apparel company to be generally loyal to the FLA’s requirements.

“They’ve ended contracts with certain producers when they haven’t followed their code of conduct,” Whitmore said. He believes Adidas does intend to operate by fair labor processes, but says the main factor is deciding, “[if] the code is adequate and is the code adequately monitored? The code is worth nothing if it is not adequately monitored.” The Adidas Company has only 30 inspectors to cover its factories worldwide.

“If they see something, they try to address it,” Whitmore said. “The question is whether there are enough monitors.”

Whitmore said Notre Dame has a “No trade in China” policy, so the University prohibits Adidas from making Notre Dame logo apparel in China. However, Adidas maintains factories in China to manufacture other goods. A Notre Dame Varsity athlete at the lecture informed Whitmore that his Adidas shoes, which do not have the Notre Dame logo on them, were made in China, proving that there may be loopholes to this policy that Adidas exploits.

Whitmore said that overall, Adidas is doing a good job compared to other clothing manufacturers.

Notre Dame’s labor views are influenced by Catholic social teaching, which states that workers should be guaranteed a living wage and the right to organize. It also states, “living wage is morally prior and ought to be legally superior to the contract.”

Whitmore attempted to refute the argument that enforcing a living wage would drive up prices and thus reduce demand for the product by asking the audience if they would pay $53 instead of $50 for a Notre Dame sweatshirt if it was guaranteed that the person who made the sweatshirt was making a living wage. The audience responded in favor of purchasing the more expensive sweatshirt.

“The argument that [the living wage] would drive up prices is not an economic argument, but one of moral will,” Whitmore said.

Whitmore and the sweatshop task force presented a conscious clause to Malloy as part of Notre Dame’s labor position. This clause stated, “If a coach or athlete, after careful examination and discernment, cannot in good conscience wear the official contracted apparel, he or she may wear a situationally-appropriate alternative.” While Malloy did not approve this clause, Whitmore said he stands by the importance of the primacy of conscience.

“It is not intrinsic to football to have an Adidas contract,” Whitmore said. “Notre Dame’s heydays were prior to that. The contracts are secondary. They might be helpful, they might help us to do better things, but they are not intrinsic to us.”