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Higgins Labor Cafe provides update on Notre Dame licensing pilot program

| Sunday, February 26, 2017

The Higgins Labor Cafe on Friday provided an update on Notre Dame’s licensing pilot program implemented in October 2015 and took student and community input for how to proceed.

All Notre Dame licensed goods, which include anything that has the Notre Dame logo on it, are produced by other brands, which usually outsource the actual production of the good. In the interest of worker rights, especially in light of Catholic Social Teaching, Notre Dame has a code of conduct for all factories that produce Notre Dame-licensed goods. This code has a zero tolerance policy for the production of goods in countries that do not promote freedom of association, which means allowing workers to unionize.

“Freedom of association is long recognized in the anti-sweatshop and licensing world as a hallmark that should be aspired towards, this idea that workers are free not to just come and go and quit as they please, but also to form unions and bargain collectively,” Dan Graff, Director of the Higgins Labor Program at the Center for Social Concerns, said.

According to Graff, Notre Dame may be the only university with the strict zero tolerance policy for outsourcing production to countries that do not allow freedom of association. While there are only 11 countries that do not allow workers to unionize, one of those countries is China, which Graff called “the workshop of the world.”

In a pilot program, Notre Dame started allowing production in five factories in China that met certain conditions. The Worker Participation Committee (WPC), which includes the Student Worker Participation Committee (SWPC) deciding this semester whether to keep the pilot program in China or whether to remove the zero tolerance requirement from the code of conduct in favor of a softer policy that would consider a situational approach.

On one hand, the right to unionize is an important part of workers’ ability to gain other rights listed in the Notre Dame code, SWPC member and former student body president Bryan Ricketts said. The SWPC and WPC found in audits of other factories, though, that some of the factories producing Notre Dame-licensed goods seem to be helping workers’ rights less than the factories in the pilot program in China.

“Many of the factories we evaluated in China had better practices than the ones in countries that actually had freedom of association,” Ricketts said. “We thought this freedom of association policy was going to protect the integrity of our goods but also the rights of workers who were making the goods for us, and it turns out they didn’t do such a hot job of that.”

Graff called the issue “messy and complicated,” adding he thinks workers would rather be in a Chinese factory than an Indian one due to better pay and conditions, even though workers do not have the right to unionize in China.

A separate issue the committee is considering is the process for auditing the 700 factories currently producing Notre Dame-licensed goods. Right now, Notre Dame uses reports from the Fair Labor Association, but, according to Graff, the University wants to make sure it does more than “check the box” on the audit requirement.

Graff called the problem “much bigger than our university.”

“We as a country are using these kinds of codes and then we can say all these conditions are being met in the factories that we are sourcing from, and yet I don’t know anybody who studies the global supply chains and would say in the past 15 or 20 years that wages or working conditions or living standards have improved in those sectors. … We, as consumers in this country, really have to think about if it hasn’t been improving globally, then what does it mean to have audits?”

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About Alexandra Muck

Alexandra Muck is a Notre Dame senior majoring in business and economics. Originally from Dallas, she currently lives in Howard Hall.

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