Mike Kelley has changed so much in the last year he said his former self is unrecognizable.
Kelley is a 17-year-old Dundee-Crown senior who has had his world turned upside down by a couple teachers and the classes that have prompted him to ask questions.
Kelley was born in Buffalo, N.Y., but his family quickly moved to Atlanta and then Algonquin, where he has spent the majority of his life in suburban comfort.
Kelley got his first job last summer, working at a clothing store in retail. His sales experience has become especially relevant in his work with other Dundee-Crown students on the Youth Labor Committee. The students launched a campaign in early November to hold clothing corporations accountable to all of the foreign workers in their supply chains.
Sears Holdings Co., based in Hoffman Estates, has drawn the students' early attention in their campaign.
"The corporate world is trying to hide things from us," Kelley said.
Kelly and other YLC students want Sears to release the names of all of the factories that make Sears products, something Sears spokesman Chris Brathwaite said the company doesn't do for proprietary reasons.
Kelley said Sears is not alone in the clothing industry. But it was a logical place to start because of the location of the company's headquarters.
This time last year, Kelley didn't have strong opinions about overseas factory labor. When he got his job in June, folding the clothes made in Bangladesh, China or Vietnam didn't grab his attention.
Joining the Youth Labor Committee in August and taking economics and advanced placement language classes sealed a change in Kelley.
He said AP language taught him about rhetoric.
"It made me question the language of corporations," Kelley said.
Last year, Kelley thought he wanted to major in engineering because of his ability with math. Now he says what he learned in rhetoric made him want to combine that knowledge with mathematics, which he thinks he can do majoring in economics and going into the field of business.
He said he wants to change the way business works, moving away from the laziness he says leads to a "sweatshop mentality." Then he can run a business with a strong moral compass.
"Find the best way for a solution, not the easiest," Kelley said.
Before he gets there, Kelley is working on a more grass-roots approach to change. He and about 50 other students and community members went to Sears headquarters in early December to demand transparency in its supply chain and also guarantee the workers in its factories have the right to organize, as well as earn enough to feed, clothe, house and educate their families.
Brathwaite said he and other Sears representatives told students the company's global compliance program is in place to prevent sweatshop conditions.
Though Kelley had read about the global compliance program on the Sears website, he said it wasn't enforced as it should be. Kelley said the program used the type of language he learned to question in his AP class. He pointed to research by the National Labor Committee (NLC) to show holes in Sears' enforcement.
Barbara Briggs of the NLC said the group documented low pay and poor working conditions in the Chittagong Fashion Factory in Bangladesh. They found U.S. Customs shipping records from November 2010 for products going from the factory to Sears and spoke with workers in the factory about being paid between 11 and 24 cents per hour for upward of 80 hours per week.
Brathwaite confirmed Sears works with a vendor that subcontracts with Chittagong. Brathwaite said Sears has worked with both parties to correct 13 violations in the factory since 2008. He said as of March 2010, the factory paid minimum wage and adhered to overtime law, but the NLC research dated to November and December 2010.
Communication between Sears and the Dundee-Crown students has continued since December. They both plan to meet again in coming weeks to further discuss Sears' policies and the students' concerns.
Kelley said he is excited to start working with Sears and shift the priorities of the clothing industry.
"The change is inevitable," Kelley said. "It's going to happen. We are just trying to accelerate the process."
To learn more about what the Youth Labor Committee is doing, visit its website at ylcnet.org.