Progress the China Policy
Letter to the Editor | Monday, February 2, 2015
This month, Notre Dame’s Worker Participation Committee will be revisiting a long-held policy in the Licensing Codes of Conduct regarding freedom of association. The policy states that no apparel with the Notre Dame name or monogram may be manufactured in countries that outlaw independent labor unions in accordance with Catholic social teaching. This policy is known as “The China Policy” because, while several countries are affected, China is by far the largest manufacturer on the list of countries. The Worker Participation Committee is considering whether to abandon the current policy and begin a pilot program in China where Notre Dame licensed apparel would be manufactured in factories with exemplary work conditions. This program would begin in hopes that Notre Dame could have a greater impact on the working conditions of individual factories in China.
As it stands today, our University sits at a crossroads — and in a refreshing twist, we are not referring to the construction project on the southeast side of campus. As proud members of a community with a long and storied history of global service and promotion of Catholic social teaching, we were thrilled to hear that Executive Vice President John Affleck-Graves had set his sights on re-evaluating the China Policy in hopes of reaffirming Notre Dame’s continued interest in the promotion of safe and fair working environments both at home and abroad.
At the time of its creation, the China Policy represented an attempt to ensure that all practices and industries that would bear the Notre Dame name or monogram would be conducted in factories where the workers did not have to fear oppression and were free to exercise their right to associate. Unfortunately, over time it has become clear that the policy holds many flaws.
Dictating our involvement in industry via countries puts a great deal of weight on official legal designations of the freedom to associate (or, in the case of states like China, the lack thereof) but it does not allow for examinations of anti-union sentiments that can so often be found in the private sector or otherwise separated from official government documentation. We feel that the China Policy as currently construed is restricted in this sense; that a blanket ban on certain states instead of a more holistic, nuanced plan in which factors de jure are considered does not suit the needs of a University that prides itself on its moral standing. In that respect, we are very excited to see what the future of the Executive Vice President’s committee will hold in terms of beginning to establish Notre Dame’s place as a leader in domestic and international labor rights activism in the 21st century.
That being said, the members of the Progressive Student Alliance wishes to express a statement of caution towards Affleck-Graves and the membership of the Worker Participation Committee.
We urge that any expectations or requirements put forth for all factories that produce official Notre Dame apparel (in China or otherwise) be re-examined and made far more stringent. As columnist Billy McMahon wisely pointed out previously in this paper, individual assessments without hard standards are ripe for abuse, either next year or next decade. The regulations and expectations established by this committee must be concrete enough to withstand the passage of time and the transference of power. We recommend that all factories producing Notre Dame licensed apparel, regardless of country, allow an independent labor association or provide employees with a living wage. These factory-specific guidelines give the University the opportunity to make a real impact on working conditions around the globe: an impact that will only be amplified if the University renews its attempts to persuade other institutions to engage in similar discourse on ethical industry practices and adopt like policies to those put forward by the Committee.
Further, we urge that the committee continue to uphold its promise to engage students, faculty and staff alike in their ongoing efforts to produce a policy that accurately reflects the needs and interests of Notre Dame as a university, a workplace and a global force for good.
Affleck-Graves mentioned the consideration of the creation of a separate committee of students to evaluate the China Policy going forward, and we encourage action to make this idea a reality. We implore that the Worker Participation Committee remain willing to engage in productive dialogue through next Tuesday’s and decision and beyond.
The Progressive Student Alliance has submitted this statement to the Committee, and now speaks exclusively to the students. We have certainly been frustrated with the administration in the past for often neglecting to pursue student input, but that frustration must also consider the students who so often disregard the opportunity and the responsibility to contribute to dialogue when called upon.
When the administration unilaterally makes decisions about the commencement venue, a $400 million construction project or the replacement of a beloved campus eatery with yet another Au Bon Pain, students quickly object. However, now that there is an opportunity for student input in a decision about the morality of the University’s apparel manufacture, there has been a distinct lack of student discussion and attendance at Committee events. Just as we seek honesty and active engagement from the Worker Participation Committee, so too do we expect the student body at large to play an active role in sharing their opinions on this nuanced, non-partisan issue. Without a complex, ongoing discussion between students, educators and staff, we cannot hope to achieve the sort of representation that we as members of the Notre Dame family so often crave.
We look forward to seeing the China Policy evolve to meet the needs of a 21st century academic institution like the University of Notre Dame. The ability to self-reflect and re-evaluate on an institutional, as well as a personal, level is crucial to remaining financially, academically and ethically relevant in this rapidly changing global society. Executive Vice President Affleck-Graves, every member of the Worker Participation Committee and all of the students who continue to strive for a safer, brighter world for all laborers, we thank you for your continued efforts and await the next opportunity to pursue positive social change in line with the University’s Catholic mission as well as their affirmed belief in the sanctity of life.
With Great Regard,
Progressive Student Alliance
The views expressed in this Letter to the Editor are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.