Christopher Longtin and his classmates just wanted theirschool board to mandate their uniform suppliers to “show and tell.” Last year, theyparticipated in a grassroots campaign and bythe fall of 2002, the Hamilton-Wentworth (Ontario) Catholic District School Boardbecame the first in Canada to adopt a formal purchasing policy. Though theiruniform suppliers are now expected to divulge manufacturers’ names andaddresses “only upon request of the board” — considered aless-than-stringent clause and unnecessary concession — it is a beginning,students say.

“Everyday, it bothered me that I could possibly be wearing something thatwas made under poor labour conditions,” says Longtin, an 18-year-old seniorat Hamilton’s St. Thomas More Catholic Secondary School

Ashley Caputo, a recent graduate of St. Basil Secondary School now attendingthe University of Ottawa, helped launch a campaign in Sault-Ste MarieCatholic schools this year. Caputo and company sacrificed every lunch hour getting petitions signed. They met every other week with their high school chaplain to review highschool purchasing policies and spent weeks, even months preparing apresentation for the school board.

It came down to a gut-wrenching,20-minute-appeal before school trustees one evening in June. Signaling theirapproval, the board agreed to secure future contracts with uniform supplierswho agree to the three main assurances of ethical practices: full publicdisclosure, upholding local labour laws and international standards, andreviewing independent monitoring.

The 19-year-old confesses she was “pleasantlysurprised” by the campaign’s success. “I don’t want to wear something possibly produced in asweatshop,” she says.

With corporate accountability lax in a globalized economy, moreand more Canadian secondary school students are checking their clothinglabels and raising questions — and demanding answers. An increasing numberof students and teachers are forming committees and lobbying their schoolboards to develop a “No Sweat” purchasing policy — one that permits theboard to terminate existing relationships with uniform suppliers ifviolations are unearthed.

Lori Ryan, Youth Initiatives Coordinator for the Canadian CatholicOrganization for Development and Peace, says high school students are nowfollowing the path blazed by anti-sweatshop campaigners on universitycampuses in recent years. It is an issue that transcends their own sphere,into Third World barrios, inside textile plants operating solely for thepurpose of mass-producing student’s day-to-day wear.

“It’s a very appealingmovement for young activists because they know they have the uniqueopportunity to directly influence school policy,” says Ryan.

Ryan says Sault Ste. Marie students scored a “significant victory” in theirdrive for full public disclosure by school uniform providers. “What’s really exciting is the amount of physical presence they had in thecommunity, which inspired other groups to become involved. The spirit andcontagious enthusiasm of students here was phenomenal,” she says.

The term “sweatshop” is now synonymous with Third World injustice. Sincecampaigns against unsafe, unfair workplaces began, younger consumers havebeen familiarized, and in some cases, desensitized to dubious corporatepractices abroad. Nonetheless, the shell game involving suspected textilefactories continues. Abuses are tricky to uncover and some brand purveyorshave “cut and run” from their responsibilities when caught, according to theCanadian Labour Congress. Adding to the depravity on the factory floor,labour standards have, at times, been lowered by countries vying formanufacturing contracts with foreign investors. In some cases, they havebeen dropped altogether by the lowest bidder.

While the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank prescribe“liberalization,” or an export-oriented open market to developing economies,half the world — nearly three billion people — live on less than two dollarsa day. The GDP (Gross Domestic Product) of the poorest 48 nations is lessthan the wealth of the world’s three richest people combined. Fifty-oneper cent of the world’s wealthiest bodies are corporations.

The poorest countries have been described as indebted, indentured servants,condemned to produce in abundance for their creditors. It is purported thatout of all human rights failures today, those in economic areas are the mostprevalent. Seven million children die each year as an indirect result ofdebt repayment to First World nations, according to corporate watchdogs. Andan estimated 790 million people in the developing world are stillchronically malnourished.

Curbing such “morally abhorrent” situations, codes based on theInternational Labour Organization (ILO) and UN conventions have beenimplemented by apparel companies as well as their host countries. On paper,safe factory conditions, fair wages and a minimum, admissible employment ageare lauded by big business. However, the application of provisions aimed atimproving labour standards around the world, is often blocked. And theindependent monitoring of locations is still challenged.

Grassroots student bodies in Ontario join a carefully woven network of NGOs,labour unions and human rights advocacy groups, called The Ethical TradingAction Group (ETAG). ETAG is a coalition of prominent church, labour andnon-governmental organizations, including the Maquila Solidarity Network(MSN), Canadian Autoworkers Union (CAW), Canadian Council for InternationalCooperation (CCIC), Canadian Labour Congress (CLC), KAIROS: CanadianEcumenical Justice Initiatives, Oxfam Canada, Steelworkers Humanity Fund,the Union of Needle Trades, Industrial and Textile Employees (UNITE), aswell as the Ontario Secondary School Teachers Federation (OSSTF). Theorganization proposed an amendment to the federal Textile Labeling Actearlier this year. It requires apparel companies to disclose theirmanufacturing sites in a publicly accessible, federal government, onlinedatabase.

In February, then-Industry Minister Allan Rock was deluged with tens ofthousands of clipped clothing labels and petitions containing 20,000signatures, all endorsing changes to disclosure rules. Submissions includedthose from students in Sault Ste. Marie and Hamilton. In response to ETAG’sprovocative campaign, Industry Canada’s Competition Bureau commissioned astudy and presented an 89-page report on the issue in May. However, itprovided a very negative assessment of the proposed regulations, according toMSN. In November, ETAG was invited back to once again participate inroundtable discussions with the government.

“People are expecting more from corporations and corporate leaders. The onusis not just on disclosing financial records properly, but the social impactsof operations both in Canada and other countries,” says Ian Thomson, aspokesperson for MSN. One of the most prominent workers’ advocacy groups inthe world, it promotes equity in maquiladora factories — the autonomous,duty-exempt exporters in Mexico, Central America, and Asia. “The No-Sweat policyis meant to reinforce workers rights in all industrialized countries. It ispossible to operate successfully as an apparel company while respectingworker rights. The two are not incompatible.”

However, arguing that the ETAG’s proposal is “unworkable,” representativesfrom the Retail Council of Canada (RCC) also met with Competition Bureaustaff earlier this year. In the May issue of its magazine, CanadianRetailer, the RCC claimed that registering each factory with a number andupdating current CA information (dealer identification printed on clothinglabels) would be a costly, logistical nightmare.

In addition, companies are reluctant to reveal proprietary information infear of being undercut by their competitors — a sentiment that pervadesthe apparel industry. “Full disclosure would certainly constitute a seriouscompetitive risk to Canadian retailers,” says Sharon Maloney, RCC’s GeneralCounsel and Senior Vice President for Government Relations.

“We don’t support the proposal to amend Textile Labeling Act, because itwon’t provide meaningful information to Canadians about how goods areproduced. Simply listing names and locations of factories doesn’t doanything to tell you under what conditions the goods are produced. Althoughwell-intentioned, it wonâe(TM)t address underlying issues.”The retail of school uniforms, alone, is a mammoth enterprise globally. Itis a multi-million dollar practice in Canada, especially in Ontario, andcontinues to expand every year as institutions, both Catholic and public,secondary and now primary, adopt dress codes. The market leader is R.J.McCarthy Ltd., which has almost exclusively procured and delivered uniformsto Catholic school systems across Canada since 1956.

“We deal with school boards who set the criteria for uniforms, the parentswho pay for them and of course students, the end users of our product,” saysMartin McCarthy, President of R.J. MacCarthy Ltd.

MacCarthy insists his manufacturers in Canada, the United States, China,Mexico, parts of Europe and Egypt, abide by International Labour Standards,based on the principles of the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights.After visiting his factories at least three times a year, he says he is“impressed” with current conditions on the floor.“We would be fools to allow ourselves to use sub-standard factories. Thatwould lead to sub-standard products, which would force the replacement ofinferior goods under warranty. Secondly, it is immoral. Thirdly, ourcustomers would put us out of business. Those companies who have been foundguilty just didnâe(TM)t do their homework. It’s very important.”

McCarthy asserts the company’s list of manufacturers is made available to“bone fide” groups who exercise the right to review it. However “tradesecrets” are safeguarded — kept under lock and key — not uploaded onto a website for the public to see.

However, ETAG discovered in their 2002 survey that 84 per cent of Canadiansfavour proposed amendments to the Textile Labeling Act. And in a pollcommissioned by the Canadian Democracy and Corporate AccountabilityCommission, 72 per cent of Canadians said big businesses should pursuesocial responsibility, not just profits. At this time, Roots Canada and theMountain Equipment Co-op are the only two Canadian companies to openlycommit to the changes currently before Industry Canada.

As consumer pressure for corporate accountability escalated in the 1990s,multinational apparel corporations such as Nike, Gap and Levi-Straussadopted their own voluntary codes of conduct and hired commercial auditorsfor their contractors. However, social activists and trade unionists sayelective codes concerning wages, hours and workers rights to organize,simply are not stringent enough. Although such provisions reinforce labourlegislation in particular countries, consumer groups have encouragedcompanies to go beyond self-regulation to ensure voluntary guidelines arenot a mere public relations artifice.

MSN also demurs, maintaining sub-standard factory conditions can no longerbe placated by what they see as superficial codes of conduct. Independent,third party monitoring by NGOs and trade unions, for example, is the privatealternative to government enforcement of international labour laws.

With the impasse on corporate transparency at the federal level, studentcampaigners still tussle with the status quo in the halls. Dissatisfied withthe shroud of secrecy over where their school crests are stitched, they haveconcentrated on less “mammoth” more localized movements. They are notdisconnected or disenfranchised. They are engaged and unrelenting, forming asingle, but crucial cog in the anti-globalization movement. Far from awhimper, the cries of head-strong students like Caputo send a powerfulmessage to the system, advocates for full corporate disclosure maintain.

“It meant a lot to me and I felt very fulfilled. We worked so hard and wegot what we wanted. We now know we can change things. We didn’t think wecould, but we did.”