Inescapable Obligations

Harvard In Mind

It makes me sick leaving for Harvard for the holidays knowing that as soon as I take off, the administration will engross themselves in a royally entertaining debacle. We weren’t gone long before Cornel "Wild Wild" West and Henry "Skip-Out" Gates got ready to dash away, dash away all to Princeton. And then, just as Summers was making up to the Af-Am Department under the mistletoe, the Katz Committee snuck in to keep things interesting until exams.

While most of you were enjoying your Christmas trees (or lack thereof), the Harvard Committee on Employment and Contracting Practices issued its report on Harvard workers and their wages. Summers has given members of the community until January 18 to register their opinions on the committee’s recommendations, and I don’t intend to miss the boat.

To my mind, the committee’s most important, and most damning finding is that Harvard has been using contracted or out-sourced workers to undercut the wages of all its low-wage employees.

Harvard’s deplorable practice is a symptom of a national trend. As institutions and companies have grown, they have hired other companies to provide ancillary services like cleaning and security. Harvard, in all its vastness, no longer wants the burden of managing and training a corps of custodians or security guards. Justifiably so; Harvard's primary mission is to educate, not to provide the cleanliness or security which undergird its academic pursuits.

But when Harvard turned over its security and custodial burdens to outside contractors it reasoned that because the workers weren’t individually on their payroll, it had no responsibility for their working conditions or wages. It’s not six degrees, but the separation was enough to for Harvard to wash its hands of its workers (except when it used them as a bargaining chip to reduce the wages of its in-house employees). As Harvard economist Richard Freeman wrote recently in The New York Times, “Many employers use contractors for low-wage work to avoid being responsible for what they know are abysmal wages, benefits and working conditions. One could accurately replace many employers with Harvard.”


The outsourcing of services forms a compelling correlary to the use of sweatshop labor in third world countries. In both situations major corporations have out-sourced forms of labor in order to cut costs and focus on their primary missions (in the clothing company’s case, the building of their brand). In both cases outsourced workers have substantially less bargaining power with either their contractors or the large American corporations who employ them. And, in both situations the consumers of the goods and services have protested the conditions of the workers, holding the primary corporations responsible for their contractor’s labor standards.

This protest is both right and good. We cannot accept the moral separation of labor obligations that has accompanied the contractual separation of outsourcing. Corporations who seek to cut costs by outsourcing do not, in installing middle-men, disconnect themselves from the workers they continue to employ.

In recommending that Harvard insist that its contractors pay equal wages and benefits to their employers to those Harvard pays its own employees the Katz Committee is calling on Harvard to behave as a fair employer to its outsourced workers, although they are not directly employed by Harvard. The committee has recommended the University, establish a parity wage and benefits policy governing on-site contractors. Such a policy is a first step toward reshouldering the moral burden, if not the managerial burden, of the University’s obligation toward all its workers.

The introduction of contracting middle-men into the service sector does make it more difficult for Harvard to be a good employer, and easier for it to be a bad one. It is harder for Harvard to ensure contracted workers are paid a living wage—after all, contracting executives pocket the extra cash when they cut wages and benefits to their workers. Because some outsourcers like Security Services Internation (SSI) are private companies we don’t know how much of the money Harvard gives them goes to their workers. This is especially true when the contracted workers are not unionized, like the guards employed by SSI. Less information is given about SSI guards in the Katz report than any type of worker. Oversight is not going to be easy.

And, the Katz Committees belief that unions will be able to set the standards for wages that can then be applied to outsourced workers is more than a little naive. Union workers will still be threatened by the presence of lower-paid contract workers, will continue to be bargained into lower wage brackets. Harvard cannot simply assume that unions, which the Katz Committee admits have weakened substantially in the last 10 years, will be able to effectively bargain under these conditions for appropriate wages. That is one of the reasons why Harvard must go beyond the committee recommendations and make its own moral judgement as to what is a living wage for all its workers.

No one ever said that doing the right thing was a walk in the park. Outsourcing seemed, in the 1990s, like a panacea for the University’s service problems. Like all such easy answers it came with a couple of major loopholes.

Filling in the moral void around outsourcing is the Katz Committee's major accomplishment. Now, Summers must not only take up their ideological banner, but turn it into the standard of an effective policy.

Meredith B. Osborn ’02 is a social studies concentrator in Leverett House.