Harvard's Take on Sweatshops

There has been much recent discussion about the working conditions of the men and women, many of them abroad, who manufacture apparel that bears a university name. The issue is simple enough to state: how can Harvard best advance the effort to see that men and women who make this apparel work under safe and healthy conditions and are treated fairly and with dignity?

When this issue first arose, a number of workers and students told us that conditions in factories making Harvard-licensed clothes were often unsafe and unlawful. Our licensees (including Champion and Gear for Sports, which together account for most of our licensing income) told us that, by and large, this was not so, and that they had serious monitoring and enforcement programs to ensure that workers were not disadvantaged.

It quickly became clear that if Harvard were to embark on a serious, credible and effective policy, we needed to have first-hand, accurate information. We asked Notre Dame, the University of Michigan, Ohio State University and the University of California system to join us. Together we have commissioned an inquiry by a diverse group of experts--including a consultant whom we met through Harvard students--that is now visiting factories, meeting with workers' and human rights organizations in seven countries that manufacture licensed apparel, examining economic data bases and making independent inquiries into working conditions.


We have also drawn up a code of conduct, reflecting considerable input from Harvard students, designed to ensure that workers are paid adequately, allowed to organize without fear of reprisal and treated fairly. We have notified our licensees that the code will become part of our overall licensing policy and must be honored by any licensee--including its subcontractors who actually own the factories--who wants to do business with Harvard.

In addition, last spring President Neil L. Rudenstine committed Harvard to the full disclosure of all factory locations of our licensees, which was a key point raised by students. Before the year was over, both of our primary licensees had disclosed their factory locations.

We have also offered our support, at least for the time being, to the Fair Labor Association (FLA). The FLA began as a cooperative union-management initiative, under the auspices of the Clinton administration, to devise a practical way to certify factories that followed acceptable codes of conduct. Labor later rejected the FLA, and we ourselves had--and still have--questions about whether FLA will ultimately be able to achieve effective enforcement of good codes of conduct. The FLA is not yet in business, but it has recruited a very distinguished pair of leaders: Charles Ruff, former White House Counsel, Watergate special prosecutor, and U.S. Attorney for Washington; and Sam Brown, former U.S. ambassador to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and head of the Peace Corps. The FLA has also given a seat on its board of directors to a university representative from Princeton and has created a University Advisory Council, which, led by Notre Dame and Duke, will work to respond to university concerns. It is also led by responsible human rights organizations, including the International Labor Rights Fund and The Lawyers Committee for Human Rights, and manufacturers such as L.L. Bean and Reebok that seem genuinely concerned with the issues that also concern us.

What's wrong--or at least not yet right--about FLA is that its plan for comprehensive monitoring of factories, a significant element of any credible antisweatshop policy, is not yet fully developed and may leave some factories uninspected for several years after certification. We also have questions about how the factories are selected for inspection; we would like to see a greater role there for the professional staff of FLA. We are also concerned about whether FLA's intent to certify brand lines, rather than factories, is an effective means of assuring that workers' rights are being protected.

Nevertheless, we believe the FLA has excellent leadership, a broad base of involvement by institutions seriously interested in the issues, and a potential capacity to provide useful information and constructive ideas. Finally, because a number of apparel companies are "at the table," there is a direct means of expressing forthrightly to them the serious concerns of universities and other groups. We have much to gain, and little to lose, by participating in the FLA effort as we also pursue our joint initiative with other universities.

Recommended Articles