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A Stand Against Sweatshops

Harvard is obliged to join the Workers' Rights Consortium, an effective monitoring group

By The CRIMSON Staff

Today, Harvard’s top lawyer, Robert W. Iuliano ’83 and Harvard Students Against Sweatshops (HSAS) will meet to rehash an old issue: Whether Harvard should join the Workers’ Rights Consortium (WRC). After years of conducting research and presenting findings to the university, HSAS has made a solid case for WRC membership; Harvard’s continued stalling on the issue is unwarranted and unjustified. Sweatshop conditions should not be tolerated—much less profited from—by the University. Iuliano and University President Lawrence H. Summers, to whom Iuliano reports, should have Harvard join the WRC now.

If Harvard joined, the WRC would monitor the factories that produce Harvard insignia clothing to ensure that they are in compliance with Harvard’s code of conduct, which prohibits sweatshop conditions including excessive hours, forced overtime, health and safety violations, child labor abuse, poverty wages, discrimination, sexual harassment and efforts to prevent unionization. Factories would be under constant threat of investigation and loss of University contracts if they violated the code; and if such a threat did not deter abuse, the WRC would—as it has done reliably in the past—respond to worker complaints and mediate solutions between factory management, brands and schools.

That some Harvard factories could possibly operate as sweatshops is alarming and abhorrent. Membership in the WRC would go far in eliminating the human and worker rights violations that characterize the production of Harvard apparel now. Rather than continuing to profit off of rights abuses, Harvard should immediately join the WRC.

Harvard is inevitably a participant in the global economy, through its purchasing, research and financial ties; and as a prominent intellectual institution, Harvard has an added responsibility to be socially responsible. Regardless of ideological positions on economic development, the school should seek to uphold an ethical bottom line in the businesses with which it is involved. Profiting off sweatshops is simply not acceptable, and Harvard administrators must take action to safeguard the rights of all people working, even indirectly, for the University.

Harvard is already a member of the Fair Labor Association (FLA), an alternative sweatshop-monitoring group, but FLA membership has never been a fair substitute for membership in the WRC. As HSAS has persistently argued to Harvard, the FLA is intimately tied to the corporations it monitors, and many of those companies have powerful seats on the FLA’s board—allowing them to prevent and delay investigations and follow-up. The actual monitors often have business ties to the companies they are supposed to investigate objectively. The FLA also frequently relies on so-called “internal monitoring,” which is simply companies monitoring themselves—an ineffective and counter-intuitive prospect for reform.

In the past few years, the WRC—representing schools other than Harvard that produce at some of the same factories—has taken action to resolve several cases of severe worker mistreatment. The WRC has a strong record of identifying abuses, promptly performing thorough investigations and resolving the problems. An independent group, not subject to the control of the companies it oversees, the WRC can credibly threaten to cut University contracts with companies that do not improve, generating proactive change when others, including the FLA, do not.

At the New Era cap factory in Buffalo, N.Y., the WRC investigated and confirmed reports that workers were fired for trying to unionize. After negotiations with the factory management failed, WRC member schools threatened to cut their contracts if conditions at the factory didn’t improve. The FLA, which had done its own investigation only after the WRC started theirs, stalled on threatening to cut contracts until after the WRC had taken action. The dispute was eventually resolved—workers kept their jobs, the brands kept production where it was and the union was recognized—because the WRC took the lead.

In an ongoing dispute at the Primo S.A. de C.V. factory in the San Bartolo free trade zone in El Salvador, where Lands’ End produces clothing for schools including Harvard, the same story is playing out again. Last spring, the WRC heard complaints of anti-union blacklisting, health and safety violations and other problems that violate its code of conduct; the WRC did a full investigation and publicized their findings. The FLA started an investigation only after the WRC went in, and never publicized what they found. And now, the WRC is leading the effort toward resolution.

The WRC has proved itself a more effective monitor—becoming a member would make Harvard a leader in improving working conditions in college apparel production. Membership in the FLA alone is an insufficient position for Harvard to take: the FLA has not been able to address rights violations as reliably and promptly as the WRC. Harvard’s involvement with sweatshops is intolerable—the school must do all it can to ensure that its apparel is produced humanely and responsibly. Harvard must join the WRC.

Dissent: Consortium Doesn't Help Workers

The Staff is correct that Harvard unquestionably has the responsibility to be ethical in the global economy. Therefore, Harvard must recognize the WRC for what it is: a pressure group whose policies are diametrically opposed to the interests of workers in developing countries.

In its Model Code of Conduct, the WRC advocates wage floors that drive up employers’ costs, encouraging companies to scale back employment overseas and produce domestically instead. Meanwhile, unskilled workers overseas need these jobs. In Vietnam, for example, employees in Nike factories earn almost three times the minimum wage for state-owned business. Many of these factories also include clinics, the only sources of medical care for employees and their families. In reality, so-called sweatshops are some of the most lucrative employment opportunities available in Vietnam and in similarly underdeveloped parts of the world. The WRC’s demands threaten to effectively deny workers a source of livelihood; by joining such an organization without more careful consideration of the consequences of its policies, Harvard would not be living up to its ethical responsibilities.

—Zachary K. Goldman ’05 and Luke Smith ’04

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