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Town hall invites discussion on ‘China policy’

| Thursday, April 14, 2016

The student worker participation committee (SWPC) hosted a town hall discussion on the “China Policy” Wednesday night in Geddes Hall.

The student worker participation committee (SWPC) hosted a town hall Wednesday night in Geddes Hall to discuss the ‘China policy’ and the ‘Freedom of Association’ policy. Rosie LoVoi | The Observer

The student worker participation committee (SWPC) hosted a town hall Wednesday night in Geddes Hall to discuss the ‘China policy’ and the ‘Freedom of Association’ policy.

Since 2001, the “Freedom of Association” policy has identified 11 countries, including China, as being ineligible for the production of University merchandise. The Worker Participation Committee (WPC) wrote a “Review of the Freedom of Association Policy,” in May 2015, which provided recommendations for assessing factories in China and other countries regarding worker participation. One of the recommendations was to form a student subcommittee to the WPC, the SWPC. 

“There was a call to bring students more intentionally to the table and so we followed up that recommendation by submitting a letter to Dr. Affleck-Graves in December 2015,” Matt Caponigro, secretary of the SWPC, said. “There were eight students who were particularly passionate about the issue, all kind of knew each other and we got together and offered to Dr. Affleck-Graves that we would volunteer ourselves to be on the committee, at least long enough to get a committee formed.”

Caponigro said that in order to best represent the student body, students from a variety of fields and organizations — both undergraduate and graduate — sit on the committee.

“We wanted to represent all of the student issues or all of the student groups we thought would be interested in this topic,” he said. “So we found people from the business school, we found people who were interested in coming at it from more of a human rights perspective. We were looking for people who were really going to be looking at this from a labor perspective. We also recognized that, despite identifying all of these student clubs around campus, we might still be missing some people, so we created a couple of seats we’re calling ‘open academic positions.’”  

Three representatives from the SWPC also sit on the WPC, which is otherwise comprised of faculty and staff.

“Ideally what we’re going to do at the end of the day is, as students, pool our resources, pool our experiences from all of these different perspectives into an informed perspective that our three reps will bring to inform the Worker Participation Committee in their meetings as equal partners at the table,” Caponigro said. “The other sort of mission is to bring so much more diversity and experience and background and thought to the process. It’s one thing to have fifteen well-experienced administrators and faculty at the table, but you double in size when you bring in these students.”

While the town hall discussion was focused on addressing factories in China and other countries the University works with, Caponigro said he and the other representatives from the WPC and SWPC in attendance would not be naming any of these countries. 

“One of the things we’re going to be careful about tonight is that to honor our working relationship with the licensees, we will not list any of the licensees by name,” he said. “We will not mention any brand names; we will not mention the names of any of the factories that we’re talking about tonight. That’s something we’ve agreed to do, sort of in good faith with our licensee partners.”

“The question is whether or not to allow manufacturing in China,” Caponigro said. “That’s a simple way of saying it; really, it’s many questions: how important are our international labor laws and statutes to inform the way that countries approach the rights and freedoms of their workers? How important is Catholic Social Teaching to informing the way we think about workers? How important is human development and the ability to do good by some people who haven’t had a lot of good done by them, even if it’s at the cost of some of the more principled ways of approaching the effort?”

Hannah O’Brien, one of the SWPC’s representatives for the WPC, was part of a group that went to Guatemala and El Salvador to assess factories the University was already utilizing. 

“This pilot program focuses on China, but we did assessments in other countries as well: Guatemala, El Salvador, India and Bangladesh, where we’d already been manufacturing,” she said. “We were making these standards for China but we wanted to make sure these other places were also meeting these standards we’re trying to enforce. In some cases, they weren’t. In fact, in some of these factories, the conditions were worse than they were in the factories in China.”  

According to O’Brien, the factories were being assessed on freedom of association and worker participation.

“Freedom of association and worker participation are not the same thing,” she said. “Freedom of association, in the broad sense, is ‘is it legal in this country for unions to be formed in any sector.’ Worker participation is not very different, but different in that unionization doesn’t have to be legal, but the goal is to see to what extent can we get the workers involved with the management and have a say in how things are run without necessarily forming a union.”

The difference between the two, O’Brien said, was clear in some of the factories they assessed in Guatemala and El Salvador.

“Unionization is legal in these countries, but it’s frowned upon,” she said. “Whereas worker participation, on the other hand, was in a lot of factories that we saw; they already had a strong system or they were making strides toward that.”

Dan Graff, director of the Higgins Labor Program said that while China technically has one union, it doesn’t function the way American unions do.

“The Chinese unions are attached to the communist party,” he said. “They’re attached to the state and there’s no ability to make any independent, legal entities outside of that framework.”

Caponigro said that while the Chinese unions exist, they don’t have high worker participation.

“Unions in the United States are voted to be in existence by the voters in a particular factory or from a particular employer, whereas unions in China, which are institutionalized with the business,” he said. “It’s mandatory for there to be a chapter but the question is whether or not workers are participating in the union.”

Several of the participants asked the WPC and SWPC members in attendance why China, in particular, was garnering so much attention and effort from the University.

“There seems to be a push for better relations with China and this is a part of that,” O’Brien said. “We already buy so many products from China, but we refuse to manufacture there. Why don’t we reevaluate that policy and see if we can get workers involved and manufacture and improve the lives of workers and do that in a way that’s actually impactful rather than just saying ‘oh, well on moral grounds, we’re not going to do this at all.’ But, effectively, we’re still not doing anything because we buy all those other products from them. It’s kind of a double standard in my opinion.”

Mike Lowe, director of licensing, said the University was, above all, trying to make a difference and the “Freedom of Association” policy, in regards to China, was not accomplishing that.

“Ideally, when Notre Dame initiated the policy in 2001, I think the inherent hope was that other universities would see this as a policy that they would adopt and, over the years, not a single other university has adopted the policy,” he said. “We have this policy that’s very strong and very moral but it didn’t make a difference. So the question is, if we engage with our licensees in production in factories they’re currently working in, are we better able, by being engaged in China to develop different levels of workers’ rights than if we just walk away from them.”

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About Megan Valley

Megan Valley is one of the Associate News Editors for The Observer. A junior majoring in English and the Program of Liberal Studies, she hails from Flushing, MI and lives in Flaherty Hall.

Contact Megan