Vol. IV, Bulletin No. 4.                                                             February 19, 1999 

In Their Crusade Against Universities' Support of Sweatshops

Freshmen Are Teaching Lessons in Global Ethics

Thank the Lord for the college students, many of them just freshmen and sophomores, who are teaching their elders powerful lessons in global ethics.  In the past few weeks youngsters at Georgetown, Duke, and Wisconsin staged campus sit-ins that succeeded in persuading university administrators to promise they would end the schools' complicity in supporting  sweatshops.

The complicity arises from business deals by which about 160 colleges and universities sell the right to use school logos on sweaters, T-shirts, caps, gym bags, and countless other items made by workers--mostly girls and young women--in overseas sweatshops.  Those lucrative licensing deals, unquestioned until collegians began challenging them two years ago, may now be reformed, thanks to student pressures.

Loosely organized under the banner of United Students Against Sweatshops, the students have emulated the non-violent struggle of the civil rights movement of the 1960s, and have taken it to an even higher moral plane. They are struggling not for their own rights, not for the rights of other students, but for the rights of foreign workers laboring in sweatshops.

'We Can't Have Our Georgetown Logos Made With Slave Labor'

At Georgetown University, for example, 27 students early this month staged a four-day, round-the-clock occupation of the president's office.  A sophomore from Massachusetts, Dominique Gonyer, 19, explained to a Washington Post reporter:

"This is a Catholic university that preaches tolerance and social justice.  We can't have our logos made with slave labor."
One of their objectives was to insist that Georgetown henceforth get information that it does not have--the names and locations of factories making products bearing the Georgetown logo. The sit-in ended on February 9 after the administration agreed to seek this information and to make other reforms in its arrangements with the Atlanta-based Collegiate Licensing Company, the liaison agency between universities (including Georgetown) and the companies that manufacture the equipment. Georgetown's progress toward those goals will be monitored by a new "licensing implementation agreement," made up of four members each from the administration, faculty, and student body.

Support for the crusade is growing fast.  After a 95-hour sit-in, students at the University of Wisconsin in Madison on February 12 won an agreement from the school's Chancellor to reform business dealings with the Collegiate Licensing Company.  Among the reforms to be sought are six specific women's rights issues, including a ban on the practice of forcing female workers to take birth control and pregnancy tests.

Meanwhile, students at Princeton, Harvard, Yale, and Cornell are also holding demonstrations against their universities' complicity with sweatshops.  Ivy League administrators are meeting in New York City to discuss an anti-sweatshop code.

(For information on the Wisconsin agreement, visit the Madison Anti-Sweatshop Coalition site at <http://www.asm.wisc.edu/masc.htm>.  To keep up with fast-moving developments, check Sweatshop Watch at <http://www.sweatshopwatch.org> and the Campaign for Labor Rights at http://www.summersault.com/~agj/clr/.  For background, see "College Students Rallying Against Sweatshops."

Counter-Pressures on University Administrators Expected

Many people are against sweatshops. Rhetorically. In principle. But when it comes to taking the necessary practical actions in support of principle, very few have the moral courage shown by the students at Georgetown, Duke, Wisconsin, and other colleges and universities.

But they cannot win alone.  They need the support of their elders, especially because administrators will be under strong pressure to ignore the idealism of the young. Look for a PR campaign portraying sweatshops as not all that bad.

Business' Negative Views on Codes of Conduct

Multinational corporations already have in place a "network of codes and principles" adequate for guiding their labor practices abroad.  They don't need any "imposed codes of conduct." In fact, "external imposition of additional codes of conduct can be confusing, contradictory, and counter-productive."
That paragraph summarizes the message that the United States Council for International Business conveys in a new position paper on corporate codes of conduct. The Council, with a membership of 300 global corporations, professional firms, and business associations, promotes the global interests of U.S. business both at home and abroad.

Responding to an 'Emotional Debate'

Its position paper on codes, adopted December 21, is designed to respond to what the Council calls an "emotional debate [that] has obscured reality."  That reality, in the Council's eyes, is that multinationals already operate under three types of codes or code-like instruments, all voluntary:

"Taken together," says the Council, "this network of codes and principles provides adequate guidance to the MNCs."

Moreover, in June 1998, the ILO adopted a Declaration on Principles and Rights at Work, which, in the Council's words, "represents, for the first time, an internationally agreed-upon set of principles regarding labor rights that are applicable to all 174 member states of the International Labor Organization."  The Council, which takes partial credit for the Declaration's adoption "without a dissenting vote," points out that "companies cannot be held accountable under the Declaration," only governments.

'Companies Cannot Be Held Responsible for Behavior of Their Contractors'

It is in that context, that the position paper emphasizes, in large type, that "external imposition of additional codes of conduct can be confusing, contradictory, and counter-productive."  Such "external imposition" leads to "unmanageable expectations," the Council says, and provides a significant explanation:

"The preponderance of the business community rejects the notion that companies can be held responsible for the overall behavior and policies and behavior of their subcontractors and suppliers throughout the supply chain...While it may be possible for a small number of companies to monitor behavior of a limited number of subcontractors as a matter of company policy, it is impossible to make this practice binding in any way. Most of our MNCs have suppliers that number in the scores of thousands."
Trying to impose "this degree of responsibility is unrealistic, overly simplistic, and legally dubious," the Council states. That position conflicts with the thrust of two significant private-sector initiatives: those of the United Students Against Sweatshops and the Apparel Industry Partnership.

The Partnership, with the active participation of several leading corporations, including Nike and Liz Claiborne, is trying to agree on a code of conduct and an effective monitoring system for the garment and shoe industries, both of which now depend on overseas contractors.  The failure of the Partnership to reach an agreement, after two years of trying, lends credence to the argument that the effort may be unrealistic.

Passing Off the Responsibility to 'Sovereign Governments'

The Council emphasizes that multinational corporations "have an obligation to adhere to the law and practice of the sovereign states in which they operate." That passes the buck to law-abiding governments like China and Burma.

Where does that leave the millions of women, children, and men who work in sweatshops?  In a hopeless situation.  Governments like China's, which have weak laws and even weaker implementation, want no "outside interference" in their internal affairs. The Council wants no "external imposition."

If the Council's and China's views prevail, sweatshops will continue to thrive, and it is unrealistic to think otherwise.

(For the full text of its position paper, check the Council's Website at <http://www.uscib.org/policy/codstat.htm>.)

Buying Freedom for Slaves, But Only a Few

When students in the fourth grade at Highline Community School outside Denver read an article about slavery in the East African country of Sudan, their first reaction was surprise: how could slavery still exist in parts of the modern world?  Their second reaction: "What are we going to do about this?"

What they did was to contact a Swiss-based human rights group called the Christian Solidarity International, which has bought freedom for some 5,000 Sudanese slaves in the past three or four years. The Colorado youngsters, moved particularly by what they learned about the enslavement of Sudanese boys and girls their own age, raised $70,000 over the last year. With those funds, Christian Solidarity International (CSI) freed more than 1,000 slaves, their freedom bought for between $50 to $100 per person.

'Purchase of a Human Being Is Absolutely Intolerable'

With an American "angle," Dan Rather on the CBS Evening News of February 1 and 2 ran a two-part series that included dramatic scenes of a CSI representative buying the freedom of Sudanese slaves. CSI itself had invited media representatives to Sudan to witness the purchases to call world attention to the plight of people--especially women and children--victimized in a civil war raging half way around the world.

The resulting publicity touched off a controversy.  "The purchase of a human being is absolutely intolerable," said Marie Heuze, a spokeswoman of the UN Children's Fund, UNICEF.  In response, CSI pointed out that it had long asked UNICEF to condemn Sudan's slavery "in the strongest terms as a crime against humanity."  Its February 6 press release also stated:

"CSI would prefer not to pay money for redeeming slaves, but there is
still no alternative to this policy. CSI believes that it would be
'absolutely intolerable' to leave thousands of children, and others, in
bondage where they are subjected to a consistent pattern of physical and
psychological torture that include death threats, beatings, rape, female
genital mutilations, and forced conversion instead of liberating some
slaves now."
'Buy-Back Is But One of Many Weapons of Abolitionists'

Says Dr. Charles Jacobs, president of the Massachusetts-based American Anti-Slavering Group: "Buying back slaves is not the solution to the problem of slavery....We fight on many fronts to combat slavery, for example, our petition, downloadable from our Website [see URL in next paragraph], informs and motivates Congress. We support the buy-back campaign....It is but one of many weapons abolitionists possess."

(For more about slavery, in Sudan and elsewhere, check the Websites of Christian Solidarity International at <http://www.csi-int.ch/special01.html>, the American Anti-Slavery Group at <http://www.anti-slavery.org>, and the Anti-Slavery International at <http://www.charitynet.org/~asi>. UNICEF has a web site at <http://www.unicef.org>. You may be more successful than I was in trying to find something there on slavery in Sudan.)

More Power to You, Ms. 'Common Person'

"My name is Beth ------, and I found your article about sweatshops on the Internet. This is an issue that I have been thinking about for a long time, and one that I may like to work on. It's everyone's responsibility. But what are ways that a common person like me can help?"
Yes, there are many things a "common person" can do about sweatshops, especially if you have access to the Internet and the World Wide Web. They provide a wealth of information on worker rights issues and what to do about them.

Finding those sources, however, can be quite a challenge. Here are two that you shouldn't miss: they carry timely information highly useful to anyone who wants to make a practical contribution in the struggle:

There are many other sources of information on how you can help. Some are listed in other sections of Human Rights for Workers.  Check China, Global Rules, Sweatshops and Child Labor, and Women Workers.  I hope to do more in coming issues to provide other highly useful links. 

Human Rights for Workers: Bulletin No. IV-4, February 19, 1999
Robert A. Senser, editor

Copyright 1999
hrfw@senser.com. (Send e-mail)

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