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Exposing Primo's Deception


By Emma S. Mackinnon

In the Primo factory in El Salvador, 5.000 workers, mostly young women, produce clothing for Harvard and other American colleges through Lands’ End. Conditions at Primo are, perhaps not entirely surprisingly, appalling. According to the Workers’ Rights Consortium (WRC), a not-for-profit independent sweatshop monitoring organization, workers at Primo face abuse from supervisors, forced and unpaid overtime and inadequate health treatment. Perhaps most egregiously, Primo systematically blacklists workers it suspects to be or have been involved with a union.

Primo particularly targets former workers from another factory, Tainan, which had been shut down immediately after a union formed there. One worker who was initially hired without Primo knowing that she had worked at Tainan was fired before starting work after a further investigation of her file; management, she told the WRC, admitted that she had been fired because of her membership in the Tainan union. Primo management told similar things to other workers who it refused to hire despite their qualifications.

Such anti-union blacklisting has cost many workers in the San Bartolo Free Trade Zone, where Primo is located, their livelihoods. Those workers describe not being able to afford water or electricity, facing eviction without having the money to pay rent and their children being expelled from school once they couldn’t pay tuition. Many are still unable to find employment and are barely able to survive.

Blacklisting violates Salvadoran and international law. It also violates the codes of conduct for apparel production of universities like Harvard. Those codes require that factories not discriminate in employment and that management respect the right to unionize and bargain collectively. Collegiate code compliance is typically monitored by the WRC or the Fair Labor Association (FLA), the latter of which Harvard is a member. When a factory is in violation of the code and the monitor investigates, schools and brands can sometimes pressure the factory to improve—a strategy that has been successful in the past. In this case, the conditions at Primo reached the WRC through local organizations in El Salvador; the WRC sent a team to collect evidence and conduct interviews, producing a report that is now publicly available.

Once a complaint reaches schools, though, those schools need to do all they can to pressure the brands that they license—in this case, Lands’ End—to insist on improvements at the factory. Lands’ End at first refused to respond to the allegations and then denied the WRC’s claims. Hopefully they will begin to cooperate with the WRC to resolve the problems at Primo. Harvard should keep a close eye on Lands’ End, their licensee, and do whatever it can to get Lands’ End and Primo back up to code.

In addition, and for the long term, the Primo case reveals the efficiency and effectiveness of the WRC as a monitor. While the FLA floundered, refusing to take any public position, the WRC was able to respond immediately to a worker complaint with a full investigation that found a consistent pattern of exploitation. While the FLA has been able and, to its credit, willing to support the WRC’s efforts to negotiate with Lands’ End, the FLA still has not released any of its own findings. It remains unclear if the FLA would have investigated Primo at all if weren’t for the lead of the WRC, and in the past FLA investigations have only come after action by the WRC. Harvard would be better represented, and have greater leverage to improve conditions in the factories that produce its clothing, by joining the WRC. And when investigating a factory like Primo, the WRC would have greater authority with Harvard behind it.

—Emma S. Mackinnon is an editorial editor.

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