Committee studies worker participation
Lesley Stevenson | Sunday, January 18, 2015
Since 2013, a committee of students, faculty and staff has been compiling data and researching the impact of the freedom of association policy in Notre Dame’s Licensing Codes of Conduct, more commonly called “the China Policy.”
“This began in the late 90s when there was a lot of activity around sweatshops, and the previous president, Fr. [Edward] “Monk” Malloy instituted a campus-wide committee to look into what Notre Dame’s response would be,” University Executive Vice President John Affleck-Graves said. “That committee met and wrote a report with a series of recommendations.
“The major recommendation in it was Notre Dame should not allow products produced with Notre Dame’s logo on it to be manufactured in countries which didn’t have complete freedom of association.”
This week, the Worker Participation Committee will put forth its findings to the Notre Dame community through a series of events focused on explaining the current policies and proposed alternatives. The following week, students and faculty will have an opportunity to respond in an open forum with committee members.
“The question on the table is to engage or not to engage, and I think the question we’re going to explore [this] week is: does engagement make sense as a way to improve the experience of workers in these factories?” Christine Cervenak, associate director of Notre Dame’s Center for Civil and Human Rights, said. “Or, I think it’s very possible that a lot of the conversation will be around why not to engage and to allow the existing policy to continue.”
Worker participation refers to factory workers’ right to freely associate, including their ability to form unions, Cervenak said. Under current rules, apparel companies like Under Armour, which the University currently licenses to create apparel, cannot produce Notre Dame products in factories where workers cannot freely associate.
“The right of association is the right that the initial policy focuses on, and this committee is really focusing on what we’re now calling workers’ participation,” she said. “If you’re unhappy with your wage or your safety or environmental issues, you should be able to complain to your employer.”
According to the Worker Participation Committee’s website, the current Freedom of Association policy, enacted in 2001 after Malloy’s committee released its recommendations, stipulates, “University licensed products cannot be manufactured in countries lacking a legal right for workers to organize and form independent labor unions of their own choosing.
“Since then, China and 10 other countries (Afghanistan, Equatorial Guinea, Iran, Laos, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Turkmenistan and United Arab Emirates) have been on a list of countries where licensees were prohibited from producing Notre Dame-licensed products.
“Notre Dame is the only university with such a policy.”
Affleck-Graves said the policy was born out of the University’s desire to lead peer institutions like Duke and Stanford in demonstrating the possibility of doing ethical business abroad in countries where working regulations and human-rights laws differ.
“It’s very important that Notre Dame always does things that it feels comfortable with and that it meets the values and morals and ethical standards that we would be proud of,” he said. “And at the same time, our mission is to be a source for good in the world and to encourage and foster change for the better wherever we can.
“That’s what’s driving this project. Is there a way where we can be an example to others of how to do ethical business in a country like China? It’s one thing to talk about it, but it’s another thing to actually do it and provide a proven and tested model that then other people can implement.
“… If we can’t, then we won’t do it. But if we can, I think it would be an exciting opportunity for Notre Dame to take the lead in this area.”
Affleck-Graves said the office of the executive vice president typically reviews each of Notre Dame’s policies about every 10 years to ensure their continued relevance. Cervenak said Affleck-Graves and Notre Dame administrators realized in their review of the licensing codes of conduct that, though well intentioned, the sanctions against China and nine other countries had not yielded a substantive positive impact.
“As I understand it, there was a hope that Notre Dame would be at the forefront of getting other universities to get behind a movement that would put pressure on China to change its labor policies,” Cervenak said. “I think there was some hope, real hope, tangible hope that that would happen, and in the end, the universities that might have joined with us did not do so.”
Student body president Lauren Vidal, who served on the panel with student body president emeritus Alex Coccia, said the fact that many Notre Dame students come from China and that the University itself has fostered a strong presence in China encouraged Affleck-Graves to review the licensing policy.
“It’s a unique opportunity because when the committee met to discuss this initially, we realized that although we banned production in China, we’ve seen no change due to the ban,” Vidal said. “… We think that this may be a unique and very constructive way to approach improving the lives of workers in a deliberate way.”
Besides compiling research, the Worker Participation Committee’s responsibilities have included considering alternatives to the China Policy. A proposed pilot program would allow “three or four” audited Chinese factories that meet certain standards of working conditions and agree to a “rigorous analysis” to begin producing Notre Dame apparel, Affleck-Graves said.
“We’ve done an audit of six factories,” he said. “To get a sense of what we could do in an audit, we took a team over to China including Lauren and Alex to visit four of the factories. We were trying to verify that the company that was doing the audits for us had actually got the message on what we thought was important.”
“So now the question is, would we actually be comfortable applying that program, and how would the companies operate under that system?” Affleck-Graves said.
Notre Dame enlisted the help of Verité, a non-profit consulting firm, to identify and assess factories in China that might participate in such a program if the current policy were to change, Cervenak said.
Last September, Vidal toured four potential factories in China with seven other individuals, including Coccia and assistant provost for internationalization Jonathan Noble, who also directs Notre Dame’s Beijing Global Gateway.
“We visited four factories, two of which were pretty phenomenal in terms of worker representation,” Vidal said. “We also visited two other factories which we decided we wouldn’t be comfortable manufacturing in. I was very happy to see that the delegation all agreed on that.”
Affleck-Graves said the Worker Participation Committee’s work and recommendations offer the campus community a chance to engage in meaningful dialogue about an issue that matters not just to the University’s mission and operations but also to concerns of the global economy.
“China is the focus of the committee because it’s the second-largest economy in the world,” Affleck-Graves said. “Within the next few years, it will probably be the largest economy of the world.”
“China is a very, very important country and so the ability to go into a country like that and influence behavior is something I personally think Notre Dame should be trying to do,” he said. “This can become a model not just for China. … By tackling one of the biggest countries, I think you have the biggest opportunity to create a role model for others.”