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Panel examines worker conditions

| Wednesday, January 21, 2015

The Office of the Executive Vice President hosted the “Worker Participation Panel Discussion” in the McKenna Hall Auditorium on Tuesday to discuss Notre Dame’s moral responsibility to support international workers’ rights and freedom of association.

The panel consisted of five members, including assistant professor of theology Margie Pfeil, professor of Business Ethics Georges Enderle, law professor Doug Cassel, Notre Dame Law School graduate Xin He, and senior Matt Caponigro. Notre Dame alumnus and student body president emeritus Alex Coccia moderated the panel.

“I am encouraged that this conversation is being brought to the wider community of Notre Dame because I think that there’s a lot that Notre Dame has to offer,” Caponigro said.

The panel’s debate centered around whether Notre Dame should implement a pilot program aimed at increasing worker participation in several Chinese factories. The pilot program, proposed by the Worker Participation Committee created by Executive Vice President John Affleck-Graves, would allow for the production of Notre Dame-licensed items in China – a departure from the University’s policy regarding licensing since 1999.

In its current form, the University’s Licensing Code of Conduct states that “products bearing the name or other trademarks of the University of Notre Dame shall only be manufactured in countries where all workers enjoy the legal rights to associate freely, form independent labor unions and collectively bargain with their employers.”

Pfeil said she believes the pilot program’s deviation from current University policy to be preemptive.

“We have an existing licensing code of conduct,” Pfeil said. “Communal engagement around the appropriateness of our current code and whether it needs revision ought to come before pursuit of a pilot manufacturing program that involves violation of that code.”

Enderle said he agreed with Pfeil that the issue under discussion is an ethical one, but supports the implementation of the pilot program in China because of its potential to establish better relations with China on a business as well as academic level.

“We should be a source for the good, not only at Notre Dame on campus but also worldwide,” he said. “That is my deep conviction … We should not shun China, but we should engage China. I can tell you that this is not easy.”

Agreeing with Enderle, Xin He said that with the transition to a new government in China, now is the opportune time for Notre Dame to exert its influence — monetary and otherwise — to bring about an improvement to Chinese workers’ rights.

“It’s a good time to review this policy,” Xin He said. “It’s a good time to engage with the Chinese factories.”

Cassel said he recognizes potential benefits of the program, but is “concerned that the focus on individual factories may not take adequate account of the broader country context.”

Regardless of whether Notre Dame adopts the pilot program, Enderle said, “we have to be careful in making judgments.”

“When we talk about human rights, we have to take a look at the full picture,” Cassel said.

Coccia said students will have the opportunity to engage in a campus-wide discussion of the issue over the next few weeks. He said a second panel discussion will be held tonight at 7 p.m. in McKenna Hall Auditorium, followed by a Higgins Labor Café meeting in Geddes Hall on Friday at 4:30 p.m.

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