University President Mary Sue Coleman renewed her pledge that all University licensees — companies that brand their products with University-licensed logos — must ensure safe factory conditions for their workers. Under Coleman’s instruction, all licensees must sign the Accord on Fire and Building Safety or provide equal or superior solutions to protect workers. This agreement between Bangladeshi factory managers and unions makes great strides in protecting workers’ rights in the country. Last April, a factory collapse in Bangladesh killed 1,000 workers, prompting the University’s chapter of United Students Against Sweatshops to raise awareness about difficult and often unsafe working conditions. The University has a responsibility to protect the workers from whom it directly or indirectly profits. While it is commendable that Coleman renewed this effort, the University needs to take further action to promote worker safety.
While this particular accord is limited to conditions in Bangladesh, and it exists basically to promote a greater human-rights and labor-rights awareness. In 2011, Nike, which is one of the more popular vendors of licensed college apparel, was accused of deceiving laborers in Indonesia about the working conditions, wage, overtime laws and the implementation of higher costs of living near factories. Nike also allegedly illegally forced laborers to work more than 40 hours per week with extremely low wages. In 2013, Adidas, one of the University’s main licensees, was accused of worker abuse by USAS. The company refused to reimburse $1.8 million in legally mandated severance to the 2,800 former workers in Indonesia after one of its contractors closed under suspect circumstances. In addition, many factory workers are young women and girls who are exposed to hazardous working conditions. By creating standards by which companies must treat their employees, and by threatening to not do business with those that do not adhere to them, Coleman has set a high bar for other colleges and universities.
Though the University’s direction to address human-rights and labor-rights issues seems appropriate, making companies sign the accord may not be enough to ensure compliance. The President’s Advisory Committee on Labor Standards and Human Rights advises “the University concerning policies and practices to ensure that corporations engaged in the manufacture of licensed goods, bearing the University of Michigan name and/or logos, are not engaged in unlawful or unconscionable labor practices.” While an advisory committee is important, there also needs to be a mechanism that the University can use to investigate suspected human rights and labor standards violators perpetrated by major business partners. The University must monitor companies that have signed and will sign the agreements to abide by approved standards to ensure their factory workers’ labor conditions and minimum-wage issues have been appropriately remedied.
While the University may not have sufficient market power to coerce labor rights violators to comply with our standards, it does have a responsibility to only support ethical companies. The University should continue to set positive examples in ethical business practices.