Worker Participation Committee discusses labor policy improvement
Lucas Masin-Moyer | Wednesday, March 29, 2017
In the early 1990s, amidst growing concerns over sweatshop labor in the developing world, University President Emeritus Fr. Edward Malloy convened a subcommittee to study the factories where Notre Dame licensed gear was produced. The subcommittee eventually settled on freedom of association for workers as the goal all manufacturers would have to follow, banning manufacturing in 11 countries — China included — which did not allow worker organization.
Tuesday evening, in the auditorium of the Eck Visitors Center, the Worker Participation Committee, convened by executive vice president John Affleck-Graves, spoke on attempts to reform their manufacturing policy and better address workers’ rights.
Affleck-Graves said the recommendation to make changes came from a University partner in protecting labor rights.
“What the Fair Labor Association was pushing me on was to move less to a country-centric approach and more to a factory approach,” he said. “I guess that was the seed of where this came from — it was pressure from our partner at the Free Labor Association.”
In order to resolve this problem, the University set up a test program in Chinese factories with the fair labor group Verite, in order to test how these factories fared on a case-by-case basis.
“We asked our licensing companies if they had factories that would want to participate in the survey, and six factories were nominated and Verite did surveys of those factories and sent the results back,” Affleck-Graves said. “Two met our criteria, two were close but needed to do some work and two did not meet our criteria.”
After this experience, the committee came up with three options to pursue in terms of their policy towards foreign labor. First, maintain the same policy. Second, continue to work with Varite in a select number of factories. Third, join with another compliance company, Summera, to join universities together to focus on labor rights. The panel stressed that none of these options had been chosen yet and that they were considering hybrid options.
Christine Cervenak, committee member and associate director of the Center for Civil and Human Rights in the Eck School of Law, said one of the biggest challenges in their assessment was applying labor standards across countries.
“[Our problem was] distinguishing between what we, first world people in South Bend, might believe to be [our] own standards,” she said.
Cervenak said this was most evident in their visitation of Chinese factories.
“When our team visited the dormitories of migrant labor factories in China, there was a slight sense of being appalled,” she said. “Our community came to understand that they were really not so bad, and much better than even the national norms.”
Affleck-Graves said the decision to test the waters in China was, in some part, motivated by Under Armor’s desire to consolidate manufacturing in the country.
“Under Armour and the other licensees we want to be with — they want to manufacture goods in one place,” he said. “[In these factories] you don’t see Notre Dame hats only, you see every school you can think of in the world … and so they want us to be part of that, so it’s very difficult for them if we say, ‘No, we don’t want to do that.’”
Graduate student Chris Iffland, a committee member, described the process all factories would be put through in order to pass Verite tests.
“The five general areas covered by the Verite assessment are as follows: workers’ right for freedom of association and collective bargaining, workers’ right to form and operate a union, good faith negotiations between factory management and union or worker representatives, effectiveness of union or worker representative body and worker grievance feedback and participation,” he said.
Affleck-Graves cited student participation as key in helping the decision making process. Representing the Student Workers Participation Committee was Junior Niko Porter, who outlined the students’ main concerns.
“The SWPC exists as an intermediary organization between the administration and the student body so students are able to have a voice in this conversation about manufacturing abroad,” he said. “Students’ foremost concerns are about the rights of workers, including but not limited to, freedom of association [and] safety in the workplace.”
No matter what decision the committee reached, Porter said, dignity ought to be at the center of the decision.
“It [must] all be based around the idea of [workers] … being treated like human beings,” he said.