Trick or Treat Workers Right

Take a look at your Harvard hoodie, and you might see a familiar swoosh. Just before Nike made its first appearance at the Coop in 2001, a factory that produces college gear for the company was reported to be shamelessly abusing its workers, from paying sub-minimum wages to denying access to bathrooms, and illegally firing hundreds who went on strike to demand they be treated like human beings. The conditions at Nike’s Kukdong factory in China were uncovered by the Workers’ Rights Consortium (WRC). When their report on Kukdong was released, universities belonging to the WRC threatened to cut their licenses with Nike if it didn’t make serious changes in its working conditions. Contrary to the prophecies of free trade fundamentalists, the university pressures did affect change: Instead of cutting and running, Nike stayed and started following the law, while the workers got their jobs back.

But if a similar case comes up today, say, in the factory that produces your beswooshed hoodie, Harvard will be sitting on its hands. Despite broad public consensus against the appalling conditions in sweatshops, our administration still hasn’t taken the simple step that would ensure Harvard isn’t profiting off sweatshop labor—joining the Workers’ Rights Consortium.

Founded and governed by school administrators, labor experts and students, the WRC was created in response to public concern with sweatshop conditions and schools’ increasing complicity in them. The WRC monitors factories that produce clothing licensed by (bearing the logos of) its member schools. If factory conditions are in violation of those schools’ codes of conduct for apparel production, the WRC releases information about the violation publicly and seeks to mediate the dispute with the factory management and the licensed brand. The WRC has investigated every worker complaint it has received (it receives complaints from its own worldwide network of local organizations). It is the only independent sweatshop monitor, making it an effective advocate for workers whose rights have been violated.

But instead of joining the WRC, Harvard has been content with membership in a far more lenient, industry-run group. The Fair Labor Association (FLA) is notorious for doing as little as possible. Created by the Apparel Industry Partnership four years ago, the FLA did not issue a public report until June of this year—and when it did so, it refused to release the names or locations of factories, shielding offending factories from any public scrutiny and rendering the reports themselves impossible to verify. Further, the FLA has no provision in its code of conduct against sexual harassment or sex discrimination, and has never taken action without the WRC investigating and acting first. It doesn’t take a Harvard student (or president) to note that this is not a track record that inspires confidence in the FLA.

A brief look at the composition of their advisory boards speaks to the difference between these groups: representatives of the very clothing companies the FLA supposedly monitors make up one third of its own executive committee; the WRC governing board, in contrast, is made up of labor experts, students and administrators. As a result, the WRC investigations are conducted and decisions about follow-up mediation are made independently of the brands involved. The FLA relies on the same corporations it’s supposed to monitor for much of its funding—seven out of the 11 monitors are for-profit, some with a history of doing business with the companies they’re monitoring. Especially given the recent record of failed corporate self-supervision and political sponsorship (think Enron), Harvard should know better than to let the fox guard the hen house.

With little to no external monitoring, the FLA keeps many of its reports secret and allows corporate board members to block actions. And despite its “reform” efforts, the FLA still lags in doing its job of responding to corporate violations of workers’ rights. From the New Era cap factory in Buffalo, N.Y., to Land’s End’s Primo factory in El Salvador, the WRC investigated charges of union-busting and discrimination and WRC-affiliated universities threatened to suspend their licenses if companies failed to comply with codes of conduct—and the companies ended up complying. The FLA, when it took a public stance, did so only after the WRC had acted.

So if the WRC has been consistently more responsive, more proactive and more effective than the FLA, why is Harvard—purportedly rather enlightened in labor matters—so slow to catch on? Why are we behind the 116 colleges and universities that have already affiliated with the WRC (among them comparable schools such as Columbia, Georgetown and Cornell)?

Why doesn’t Harvard take the steps necessary to bring its policies in line with its Statement of Values’ promise of “respect for the rights, differences, and dignity of others”? What of the respect for the rights and dignity of workers, which many have fought long and hard to make a reality here?

General Counsel Robert W. Iuliano ’83 is set to make a recommendation to University President Lawrence H. Summers on whether to join the WRC in a matter of weeks. Summers and Iuliano have to show that the Harvard community remains committed to these principles—not just on paper, but in policy and in practice.

If the administration now fails to prove it’s serious about the human rights of workers like those at Kukdong, New Era and Primo, how can people take Harvard seriously about human rights at all? Five years after Harvard began to negotiate with sweatshop activists, why has Harvard done so little? The solution is simple: become the 117th member of the Workers’ Rights Consortium. For students, it could mean the difference between pride and shame in what our university is doing. For workers, it could mean the difference between getting a paycheck and being tossed out on the street, families and all.

Michael Gould-Wartofsky ’07 lives in Thayer Hall. Emma S. Mackinnon ’05, a Crimson editor, is a social studies concentrator in Dudley House. Both are members of the Progressive Student Labor Movement/Harvard Students Against Sweatshops.