In December, students at Georgetown University staged a sit-in, protesting the school’s licensing agreement with Nike over concerns regarding labor practices. Months later, Georgetown and Nike have reached a new agreement that includes guidelines for investigations into the working conditions of factories.
The new protocol ensures that the Worker Rights Consortium, a labor rights monitoring organization, will have access to Nike’s supplier factories. It also bolsters coordination between the consortium and the sportswear company when a violation is identified and change is needed.
The protocol was approved last week and incorporated into a new retail licensing agreement between Nike and the school, which was signed last Friday, according to a Georgetown spokeswoman.
“We now have a road map together for how we coordinate, which we didn’t have before,” said Hannah Jones, Nike’s chief sustainability officer. “This protocol helps us to establish how we will work together in a much clearer way.”
The licensing agreement is related to Georgetown University apparel such as Nike-produced T-shirts, items that would normally be for sale in the university bookstore. It is not the same as a sponsorship deal, though Georgetown also has a sponsorship agreement with Nike.
Students who participated in the December sit-in were pushing for the private university to end its Nike licensing agreement, which was set to expire Dec. 31.
The students noted a report by the Worker Rights Consortium, which found that factory workers in Vietnam endured poor treatment, including not being allowed bathroom breaks and being padlocked in the factory.
“Our job, on behalf of the university, is to determine whether or not violations have occurred,” said Scott Nova, executive director of the Worker Rights Consortium. “In the case of that facility, we identified a number of significant labor rights violations and have been working since then to try to get them corrected.”
Georgetown let the licensing agreement with Nike expire, and was not the only school to do so. Instead of abandoning the matter, though, Georgetown then was involved in creating the new guidelines.
“As a university, we are able to realize our commitment to the safety, welfare and rights of workers through principled and practical engagement,” Georgetown University president John J. DeGioia said in a statement. “This protocol is animated by our shared commitment to workers’ rights and a belief in the dignity and worth of every individual.”
Nike’s Jones said there was a breakdown in trust and communication between the parties but that Georgetown ultimately played a pivotal role by recommending mediation on the basis of “a shared vision of good.”
“We were pretty easily, very quickly, able to establish that we did indeed have a shared vision of good, which is ultimately to impact system change across the apparel and footwear industry for workers; that was something that was really — we were all passionate about,” Jones said. “What we weren’t agreeing on, per se, was the ways to get there.”
Nova said it was important to understand the special nature of the university labor standards.
“Every brand and retailer in the garment industry has its own labor code and monitoring program, but those are voluntary programs, created by each brand and retailer itself,” Nova said. “What is special about the university codes is that they’re binding, they’re part of the contract between the university and the brand.”
Because of that, and because the Worker Rights Consortium can carry out independent inspections, the university codes have been effective at creating change for workers, Nova said.
“They’ve been a powerful instrument for improving conditions in a difficult industry,” Nova said.