HC joins Worker Rights Consortium
By biconews On 1 Feb, 2000 At 05:00 AM | Categorized As Archives | With 0 Comments

By Heather Grigo

On Dec. 23, Haverford President Tom Tritton signed his name on behalf of Haverford College to join the Worker Rights Consortium (WRC).

Haverford is just the third educational institution in the country - behind Brown and Loyola of New Orleans - to be a member, and the first of five Philadelphia-area schools including Bryn Mawr, Temple, St. Joseph’s and UPenn where students have been active as well.

The WRC defines itself as “a non-profit organization that supports and verifies licensee compliance with production codes of conduct. Colleges and universities nationwide have created these codes to ensure that workers’ basic rights are respected during the production process. The WRC is backed by a growing number of international labor rights organizations. This network gives workers the opportunity to report complaints securely and confidentially with no risk of job termination. By exposing workers experiences to public view and having investigations of alleged workplace abuses, this provides a very powerful incentive to licensees to make systemic changes in how they source their products.

Not all organizations uphold the reputation of the young WRC, nor is it the only organization out there for schools to support. In fact, Haverford nearly linked itself with a different one last summer. This group, the Fair Labor Association (FLA), enforced a June 15 deadline for schools to join, influencing colleges to some extent to jump on the bandwagon.

Having been involved in worker rights’ at Haverford for some time, senior Ben Stokes remembered his feeling of panic when Haverford ‘s administration was about to join the FLA: “They sent out an email to some of the students who had initiated the anti-sweatshop debate on campus. And we screamed ‘No! Wait!’ Perhaps because of the small-school, dialogue-oriented place that Haverford is, the administration listened and agreed to wait to hear the student concerns.”

The reason for the student groups strong opposition 55 as the FLA’s unreasonable methods of investigation. In an October meeting between members of the student group and the Committee on Investment and Social Responsibility (CISR). Stokes, freshmen Adam Berg, and senior Maria Roeper outlined these techniques. The largest faults cited were instances of FLA notification to companies in question as to when inspections would take place and where they would occur. This allowed sweatshops to cover up poor facilities or policies for a period of hours, defeating the purpose of the inspection. Said Roeper of the association’s methods. “The FLA will monitor factories, but in an inadequate way: only 10 percent of the factories are monitored, but 100 percent of all the labels read ‘sweatshop free.’” Furthermore, managers could then threaten to fire employees if they failed to give off a positive impression.

The result of this explanation was the creation of a sub-committee, the Committee on Sweat-Free Workplace, comprised of Berg, Roeper, sophomore Kristine Farrenkoff, Administrator Alan Crosman, Professor Linda Gerstein, Haverford College Bookstore employee Mary DiLullo, and CISR member Russel R. Reno. This group would work toward finding a better option - the WRC. Roeper was particularly instrumental in the organizational process, according to Stokes, as she joined forces with the United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS) this fall. Now she is taking a semester off from Haverford to open the New York office, for which she is the National WRC Coordinator, and focus solely on helping the WRC get off its feet. Roeper commented on the duty of students to play a part in this effort: “There are workers struggling for their own rights, working 80 hours a week, sometimes single mothers with children, given forced pregnancy tests and forced contraception. Nobody pays attention when these people organize and get fired or when organizers have death threats made against them. It’s our job as students to pay attention to that, and to force the companies to pay attention; where they wouldn’t pay attention to the workers, they have been paying attention to us.”

Student representatives from local colleges went to the Philadelphia councilmen to draft a resolution and find supporters for the upstart WRC. Success shortly followed as the city hosted a press conference where students, councilmen and supporting organizations like the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees (UNITE) were all on hand.

The next day the City Council unanimously approved the resolution and Haverford students presented the results to President Tritton in mid-December, just days after the announcement. Tritton, adamantly in favor of joining the WRC, told students that he wanted to speak with senior staff members before committing. He promised a decision before second semester began.

At the moment Haverford signed onto the WRC, only two other colleges across the nation had done the same. When asked why Haverford decided to take the initiative to join the consortium, particularly so soon after its conception, Tritton responded. “We’re not followers, we’re leaders.” Indeed, much led to the decision to support the WRC: “A small group of students worked on this very hard for a long time. The whole student body had a plenary resolution expressing their support.” The Board of Managers then became involved and created a resolution supporting the principles outlined by the plenary resolution. With the subsequent creation of the Committee on Sweat-Free Workplace, whose members were appointed by the Board, the group recommended that Haverford join and support the Worker Rights Consortium in order to implement what the Board believed. Said Tritton, “We talked about it for a little while. I asked them questions, they gave me good answers, and I took their advice. I think it was the right thing for us to do.”

Roeper shared Tritton’s view of Haverford as a pathfinder: “Haverford is an institution that considers itself a social justice institution, and with that value it has a moral obligation to care about the effects of its actions on other people. …I think Haverford decided to be on the moral high ground and try and lead the way. I think every school should do that.” Then why have other universities not yet joined the WRC? Administrator Alan Crosman, Chair of the working group on a campus Sweat Free Code of Conduct, cited the catch-22 responsible for these hesitancies: “I think many are waiting to see if others sign on. There is a chicken-and-egg problem here - folks want to be part of something that will be viable, but it won’t be viable until a number of folks sign on.” Crosman was hoping that Haverford’s decision will encourage other universities to sign on.

In addition, it is sometimes in the economic interest of universities to have institutions like sweatshops be maintained in society, said Berg. “They haven’t signed on yet. I think, because the fact is the Boards of Trustees in the regions of a lot of these school have these financial stakes. … The fact that corporate executives populate the Boards of Trustees at many school means that schools have a lot of ties with people of profit.”

In order to gain strength, more universities must become part of the effort: Berg believes the future will bring more membership: “Students aren’t going to let up the pressure on this. We’re committed to making this happen, and a lot of people support us. Eventually, I think that reason will prevail, and people will see that this is the way we’re going to most effectively get rid of this problem.”

Of Haverford’s numerous responsibilities as a WRC supporter, an important question concerns its methods for carrying out those duties: How will it enforce contract provisions that require decent working conditions in factories producing their licensed products? All university members must have decent-standard conditions in their codes of conduct, but each school decides their own mechanism for enforcement. The WRC will gather information based on the code and make recommendations to schools as to how they should act, as well as recommend to factories to improve working conditions if the existing ones violate those codes.

The WRC did not fail to overlook a dramatic issue - if a factory goes out of business as a result of a university’s decision to terminate its license with the company for whom the factory provides products, the workers lose often their only source of income. When asked how the WRC handles this concern, Berg emphasized the importance of keeping factories running: “Termination of the contract is a last resort. The plan is really designed to empower workers and facilitate their own collective action instead of the company just cutting and running.” Continued Berg, “It’s standing on shaky ground for middle-class white college students to say, ‘Yeah, they could lose their jobs,’ but we have consulted [the workers] about this plan, and students have gone on delegations and talked to workers in other countries and developed this plan designed on their input.”

Of key importance to the issue of betterment of working conditions is the concept of “cultural relativism”; different countries possess different beliefs of what constitutes a person’s basic human rights. The WRC has indeed taken this into consideration, and Crosman emphasizes the consortium’s efforts to work with representatives from developing countries so those differences would be reflected in standards developed by the WRC. Tritton also commented, “There are basic human rights that all people care about. …The ‘obligation’ to me is that all human beings look out for each other.”

The goal of many students in this process was to create a sensible, effective means of improving working conditions. Kate Conway, a sophomore at Haverford College, involved with press communication with City Hall, expressed her feelings between the WRC and FLA. She sais, [sic] “[Colleges] can choose the charade that is [the] Fair Labor Association, or they can support a living wage, strong provisions for women’s rights, public disclosure, and verification of factory conditions through local groups that have the trust of the workers. The choice is clear, and I trust that Philadelphia schools will make the right decision and join the Worker Rights Consortium.”

One of these nearby schools, the University of Pennsylvania, has set a Feb. 1 deadline for its administration to sign on to the Workers Rights Consortium. Students at Georgetown, Michigan and Indiana have placed the same date on their schools as well.

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