Recognizing Modern-Day Slavery at Harvard

“If we can better understand how oppression and exploitation could seem commonplace to so many of those who built Harvard, we may better equip ourselves to combat our own shortcomings and to advance justice and equality in our own time.” — President Drew Faust

Last month, President Faust authored a piece in this newspaper acknowledging Harvard’s ties to historical slavery. President Faust’s call to interrogate Harvard’s complicit role in exploitations of the past signals great progress in the direction of social justice. Our nation still struggles with the centuries-long reverberations of our history with slavery—in our institutions, our social structures, and our economy.

And slavery is still among us.

Think about a few of the items you bought this past year. A chocolate bar. A couple new shirts. The latest iPhone. Do you know where those products came from? Do you know how many of them were made by people who were coerced, abducted, or tricked into performing labor without their consent? More than 21 million people are victims of forced labor and other forms of modern slavery worldwide. They make our clothes, shoes, phones, and other commodities. Slaves living in the United States pick the fruits and vegetables we eat. Even in 2016, we all participate in a global economy that runs on slaves.

If we don’t take action now to sustainably address modern-day slavery, future generations will look back and wonder how we tolerated such atrocities for so long, leaving the world to suffer the consequences.


In an ideal world, consumers would be armed with data and options, and could choose to support companies that ensure strong labor standards. The reality is that many of us do not have the time and energy to devote to investigating the origins of every purchase we make. However, we can build a partnership—across all Harvard schools, student groups, faculty members, functional departments, and alumni networks—to leverage the University’s purchasing power to make a real impact on the lives of workers.

According to the Office of Strategic Procurement, the University procures more than $3.4 billion in goods and services each year; despite the high risk that modern slavery exists in at least some places along the many tiers of the procurement supply chain, there are currently no mechanisms in place to hold accountable Harvard’s thousands of supplier companies. Other universities are already looking at this issue: For example, at the University of Michigan, the President’s Advisory Committee on Labor Standards and Human Rights has been in place since 2000 and monitors the labor practices of companies selling goods licensed by the university. Originally formed to look at licensed goods, the Committee has begun to explore the labor practices used to produce other goods procured by the University. Similarly, Harvard belongs to the Fair Labor Association, meaning licensed goods produced for the University must meet certain labor standards in production. However, right now too much is still unknown about human rights standards in the University’s broader procurement supply chains beyond licensed goods.

The first step to progress is a holistic understanding of Harvard’s supply chains. Next week, a core team of students from the College, the Kennedy School, the Law School, the Business School, and the School of Public Health are opening a dialogue with the administration to strive for greater transparency about the University’s purchasing and procurement methods. With a deeper understanding of the supply chains, we can then determine if policy changes are needed to ensure that no future exploitative labor practices exist in Harvard’s procurement.

But transparency is only possible if there is commitment from students and staff alike.

We know that Harvard students care about human rights and labor injustices; past generations of students have worked tirelessly for change. In March 2000, after pressuring the administration for over a year to provide Harvard workers a living wage of $10.25 per hour, Harvard’s Progressive Student Labor Movement gained national attention when they occupied Massachusetts Hall for 21 days. Eventually, their efforts persuaded the University to increase workers’ wages. In November 2000, Harvard Students Against Sweatshops successfully urged then-President Larry Summers to join the Workers’ Rights Consortium as a measure to ensure Harvard-labeled apparel would not be made in sweatshops. This year, student activists successfully advocated for the elimination of the title “House master” and the removal of the Royall family crest from the Harvard Law School shield.

But we still have a long way to go. Our complacency in not knowing the extent of the exploitation tainting our supply chains is no longer acceptable. If our campus community truly believes that injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere, we cannot possibly stand for exploitation of any form against a fellow human. Even though we may not be in close proximity to human rights violations within our supply chains, members of the Harvard community are best positioned to act on behalf of those who are powerless and dehumanized, given the University’s position in the spotlight as a major academic institution and driver of social change. We hope we can count on your support of our coalition of students to engage the administration to identify new solutions for greater transparency. Let's ensure our tuition dollars are never funding slavery. Not in 1737, and not today.

We need your support.

Caitlin M. Ryan is a second-year MPP candidate at the Harvard Kennedy School. Diana E. Sheedy ’16 is an Economics concentrator living in Cabot House. Tatum R. Williamson is a first-year MS candidate at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.


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