Fair Labor Association President: companies put profits over rights

Tuesday, November 12, 2019 - 8:56pm

Sharon Waxman, President and CEO of The Fair Labor Association, speaks to students and faculty at Ross Tuesday evening

Sharon Waxman, President and CEO of The Fair Labor Association, speaks to students and faculty at Ross Tuesday evening Buy this photo
Emma Mati/Daily

Sharon Waxman, president and CEO of the Fair Labor Association, gave a presentation Tuesday night on the importance of transparency and enforcing human rights mandates in big corporations. The discussion took place in the Ross School of Business and drew in a crowd of about 40 community members.

Ravi Anupindi, chair of the President’s Advisory Committee on Labor Standards and Human Rights at the University, began by explaining the University’s role in supporting fair labor practices. 

“Anything that you buy that has a Michigan logo, as a University we care about the labor standards and human rights and the supply chains that produce these products,” Anupindi said. “There is an operational mandate to ensure that companies that we license our logo to actually meet the labor standards of human rights.”

Waxman began her presentation by discussing a past trend in large industries to prioritize profit over the well-being of workers. However, she said that rhetoric has begun to change in recent years. 

“For decades, the premise that companies exist for the benefit of shareholders has driven a lot of CEOs and boards of directors to make decisions based primarily on profitability,” Waxman said. “Although not entirely new, the concept that companies have a role to play in society, for the good of society, has emerged as a focal point in recent years.”

This shift has primarily been driven by younger generations, Waxman added. She said they are more conscious of human rights and make more mindful purchasing decisions. 

“While the fight to improve working conditions is far from a new one, it is clear today’s up-and-coming generations are far more aware and mindful of social issues, including the treatment of workers,” Waxman said.

Waxman then explained one way the Fair Labor Association has been effective in promoting the humane treatment of workers through full transparency of their investigations. She said it holds the companies accountable in a way many other organizations do not. 

“Our commitment to transparency has really been a foundational principle,” Waxman said. “We don’t think of transparency as an end, but rather the means to an end. We believe in shining a light on working conditions and global supply chains because it promotes accountability and engenders trust.”

Waxman said there are a variety of challenges facing workers, but one of the most pressing was the fight for a fair wage. She claimed low wages harm both the worker and the company, adding workers have the right to compensation for a regular workweek to fit their basic needs and should have some discretionary income.

“One of the most pernicious challenges is fairly compensating workers — in other words, providing a livable wage,” Waxman said. “It’s not an exaggeration to say that chronically low wages are really an affront to the humanity and dignity of workers. They undermine the success of families and communities, and from the business perspective, can drain productivity, motivation and business success.”

Waxman concluded by discussing how many companies feel the need to produce as much as they can as fast as they can, which can negatively impact factory workers.

“There’s enormous pressure for brands and factories to produce things super quickly, and it really takes a toll on the people who work in them,” Waxman said.

LSA senior Ryan Rich said he attended the event in order to see how to enact change in these sectors. He said he came in without knowing much about the Fair Labor Association and was surprised to learn how effective it is in holding companies accountable through transparency.

“I didn’t know too much about this organization, but it really sounds like the people affiliated with them, with the Fair Labor Association, have committed and are being held accountable in a way I had never seen before,” Rich said. “There was a group, a very large group of companies and universities, that are willing to be held accountable. It’s rare.”