Human Rights Dialogue (1994–2005): Series 2, No. 4 (Fall 2000): Who Can Protect Workers' Rights? The Workplace Codes of Conduct Debates: Articles: Speaking with a Unified Voice: Student Consumers Make Targeted Change

Oct 6, 2000

Since the spring of 1998 colleges and universities in the United States have experienced a renewed wave of student activism against widespread violations of workers’ rights in factories that produce their licensed apparel. United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS), an organization with chapters on more than 175 U.S. college campuses, has led the movement, which grew out of the publicity campaign against inhumane working conditions in the global apparel industry. That spring, I listened to firsthand testimony from a young man and woman my age who worked in a factory in the Dominican Republic, sewing apparel for my school, Brown University, and many others. Hearing their experiences of 12-hour workdays and starvation wages compelled me to become active in the Brown Student Labor Alliance in Providence, Rhode Island, a chapter of USAS and a supporter of workers struggling to ensure their rights. The experience in my local chapter led me to participate at the national level, and I am now a USAS representative to the governing board of a new anti-sweatshop organization, the Worker Rights Consortium.

In its efforts to support workers fighting sweatshop conditions around the world, USAS must confront a fundamental dilemma. Though the global apparel industry offers inhumane working conditions and sub–poverty level wages, its sweatshop jobs are better paying than most others in developing countries. If universities try to come clean on the sweatshop issue by moving all apparel production back to unionized factories in the United States, it would cost workers in developing countries their jobs. Therefore, USAS calls on the apparel industry to keep these jobs in the countries where they are so desperately needed, and asks colleges and universities in the United States to pioneer ways to improve working conditions and empower workers.

The first step a school can take is to adopt a code of conduct, a document that sets minimum labor standards for factories producing collegiate apparel. Duke University and Brown University passed the first two of these codes in the spring of 1998; now, more than 200 colleges and universities in the United States have adopted a code of conduct for the hats, t-shirts, sweatshirts, rocking chairs, and other items that bear the school’s name. Colleges and universities send their code to each of their apparel licensees, who either sign the document or lose their contract. Most have signed.

Codes of conduct allow colleges and universities to speak with a unified voice in demanding basic labor standards for the factories where their apparel is made. Students favor codes of conduct because they offer a way to institutionalize responsible buying practices. The general public’s interest in sweatshops may peak and wane, but codes of conduct ensure that basic labor standards are included in a school’s apparel licensing operation as policy, not just principle.

It hasn’t been easy, however, to convince college and university administrations to agree to a code of conduct that adequately addressed workers’ concerns. Most of the original codes were passed without four crucial provisions: women’s rights (protection from sexual harassment and forced birth control), the right to organize and collectively bargain, full public disclosure of factory addresses, and a living wage. College administrations stated that the women’s rights, collective organizing, and public disclosure principles were unrealistic and that a living wage cannot be calculated. Through a flurry of sit-ins, teach-ins, and rallies, USAS spent 1998 to 1999 convincing university administrations that these provisions were crucial. Student activism proved immensely effective: Today women’s rights and the right to organize are recognized in most collegiate codes; apparel companies began to disclose factory addresses in response to combined student and administration pressure; and a collegiate symposium in November 1999 at the University of Wisconsin–Madison reached consensus that a living wage can indeed be calculated, as human rights activists have argued for years.

But even a strong code of conduct is only a piece of paper unless the apparel factories are effectively monitored to ensure that the standards are enforced. Most apparel companies sign a code of conduct without even attempting to meet its demands. The proper monitoring mechanisms for a code of conduct became the subject of prominent debate on college campuses this past year, with the emergence of two new organizations seeking to monitor implementation of university codes: the Fair Labor Association (FLA) and the Worker Rights Consortium (WRC). The Fair Labor Association, which grew out of efforts by the Clinton administration to bring labor advocates and the apparel industry both to the table, allows companies to choose and hire an accredited external monitor to perform factory inspections. The FLA proposes that monitoring a 5 to 15 percent sample of preselected factories is sufficient to ensure that the FLA code is being met at all of a company’s facilities throughout the world.

USAS and other groups have been protesting the FLA as ineffective at best, and damaging to worker campaigns at worst. Even though many FLA member companies have disclosed the addresses of factories producing collegiate apparel, this is not required by the FLA. Furthermore, no information about factory inspections will be made public under the FLA, and worker complaints are investigated by the company in question and their contracted monitor. Supporters of the FLA may claim that the abuses of the apparel industry require immediate, practical solutions, but students will not support an organization that places a label of “sweat-free” on every garment made in a preselected factory inspected once every ten years by a contracted monitoring company.

Students do support the Worker Rights Consortium, which proposes an entirely different approach to enforcing codes of conduct. The WRC has been developed by students, labor rights experts, and workers themselves. Unlike the FLA’s top-down method of monitoring factories, the WRC focuses on educating workers about their rights under codes of conduct and then giving them an outlet to report possible code violations. Workers can confidentially report code violations to the WRC agency, which will then investigate and work with universities and companies to remedy the violation. As with the initial code of conduct adoption campaign, most university administrations were reluctant to join the WRC. In order to make the student voice heard, we organized rallies and sit-ins across the country, a 10-day hunger strike at Purdue University, and an occupation at the University of Wisconsin that ended in the arrest of 54 students protestors. The WRC now has 58 college and university members.

Yet workers continue to face tremendous repercussions for trying to protect their rights. I recently heard firsthand testimony from two Nicaraguan workers who were included in mass layoffs when their union attempted to negotiate an 8-cent raise from the Target and Kohls corporations. The WRC aims to meet the challenge of such repercussions in two ways. First, to ensure that it addresses worker priorities such as job security, the WRC will be working in close partnership with workers and will not try to take their place at the bargaining table. Second, the WRC reserves its strictest punishments—financial penalties and wide publicity—for behavior such as intimidating workers through mass layoffs.

The apparel industry has employed codes of conduct before as a way of reassuring the public of its commitment to labor standards. But because of the attention that student activism has brought to the issue, the college and university codes mark the first time that the efficacy of codes will be tested before a wide audience of dedicated observers. The results of the WRC will tell us much about the ability of the anti-sweatshop movement to enforce strong codes in targeted areas such as collegiate apparel production. The FLA’s task of ensuring code compliance in factories producing apparel for the broader general market is much more daunting. It is unlikely that voluntary codes alone can accomplish such widespread change. To ensure long-term protection of workers’ rights in the entire apparel industry and throughout the global economy, energies might be channeled into increasing the authority and effectiveness of an international regulatory and investigatory body, such as the International Labor Organization. In the meantime, the code campaign has introduced hundreds of students and consumers to issues of corporate accountability and workers’ rights, as well as inspired many students to continue their involvement in these issues after college.

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