The recent administration decision to form a sweatshop labor oversight committee, probably monitored by accounting firm Price-Waterhouse-Coopers, is a good sign. In response to student protests over possible sweatshop activities involving companies manufacturing Harvard apparel, the administration has shown its willingness to probe deeper to correct this egregious abuse of human labor.
Since student groups such as the Progressive Students Labor Movement (PSLM) began protesting the University's possible links to companies which used sweatshop labor, there have been two major demands. The first was met two months ago, when the "Rally For Justice" produced a statement from the administration advocating full disclosure of the locations of factories that manufacture Harvard apparel.
The other demand, for an independent monitor to oversee clothing factories around the world, is more difficult. At first, the administration, along with those of other Ivy League schools, joined the Fair Labor Association (FLA), a group of universities organized by the White House to keep an eye on the companies they hired. However, the FLA does not go into effect until 2000, and student demands have become more strident since then. The PSLM has claimed that the FLA is structurally weak for giving too much authority to the companies it was trying to inspect.
Again, the administration responded, this time by announcing last week that it, along with Note Dame, Ohio State and the University of California system, would hire an independent monitor to oversee its links to companies with questionable labor practices overseas. The new agreement was the best one yet, allowing for the pooling of resources among the universities and the employment of an outside company, Price-Waterhouse-Coopers, to evaluate its production methods.
However, there are still problems with the policy. Price-Waterhouse has an extensive list of clients, including companies infamous for their overseas sweatshop labor and poor pay, such as Nike, Reebok and Liz Claiborne. These connections could lead to an awkward situation among the partner schools and their monitor and perhaps even result in an immobilizing conflict of interest. PSLM continues to protest the move, submitting its own suggestions for companies which should be hired to do the monitoring.
However, just as PSLM has cast doubt upon Price-Waterhouse, it is reasonable to believe that the companies suggested by PSLM may have biases of their own. Antisweatshop organizations have no more claim to objectivity than a company like Price-Waterhouse whose reputation is based on its ability to be fair and unbiased. No matter what company is used, the University must remain vigilant in order to ensure that the company it hires does the job well.
Unfortunately, the administration has yet to set up the body made of students, administrators and faculty to advise the president on which companies to hire. While it has listened to student voices, especially those of the vocal PSLM, the administration could do a better job of actually involving students in these decisions, instead of gauging their reactions.
Still, the new policy is a step in the right direction. In the last few months there has been substantial progress. The willingness to act on the voices of the students groups demanding equality could be improved, but even the attempt gives us hope that the conflict will be resolved sometime soon.
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