University should consider

In response to rising concerns among students that the University might be affiliated with apparel manufacturers that are illegally involved with sweatshop labor, President Mark Yudof set up a task force in 1998 to address the issue. While the task force has been slow to come up with any recommendations, members said they will reveal their conclusions within the next 45 days. When the topic arose nearly two years ago, many thought the University should join the federal government-sponsored Fair Labor Association. However, the labor organization’s corporate ties have hindered its fairness and effectiveness. The world’s exploited workers — as well as the University’s reputation — would be better served through membership in the more independent, student-created Workers’ Rights Consortium.
Interest in the anti-sweatshop movement has grown steadily since 1996, when the National Labor Committee discovered sweatshop conditions in factories producing clothing for talk show host Kathie Lee Gifford. The federal government responded — albeit slowly — to what has become the largest student-supported movement in more than a decade by establishing the Fair Labor Association in 1999. More than 130 universities, corporations and nongovernmental organizations have joined the association.
Many students and labor-rights groups in the United States, however, accuse the organization for lacking influence and pandering to corporate interests. United Students Against Sweatshops created the Workers’ Rights Consortium as an idealistic and independent alternative to the ineffectual FLA. Unlike the FLA, the WRC strives for total independence in monitoring the industry. The student and labor-rights group stresses the importance of full disclosure, which allows universities and labor-watch groups to scrutinize the manufacturers’ adherence to globally agreed-upon labor standards.
The student coalition also distinguishes itself from its well-meaning sister organization by its stricter code of conduct. While the FLA does not require companies to offer its employees a living wage, the coalition considers it “essential to meeting employees’ basic needs,” according to their code of conduct report. Indeed, without a fair salary, adequately caring for one’s family becomes impossible, leading in some cases to death or alternative ways of earning an income, such as crime and child labor.
Institutions must evaluate their ties to the apparel industry to ensure their logo is not used to support companies that violate labor-rights laws. By forcing companies to disclose all information concerning their factories’ whereabouts and labor conditions, universities, students and human-rights groups will be able to respond to the exploitation of labor around the globe. Although we applaud the University’s efforts to deal with this difficult issue, the task force should heed students’ justified complaints about the Fair Labor Association and instead join an organization with loftier goals and ideals.