Masked students once again paraded across campus on Friday, but unlike the pink-clad Valentine’s Day pranksters, they were protesting, not passing out candy. While the protest against the University’s partnership with companies that might use sweatshops to produce University branded apparel was far from perfect, it did bring attention to an important issue: the lax enforcement of the University’s own Code of Conduct for Licensees. Whether or not licensees are actually employing sweatshop labor, administrators have little to lose from allowing third-party oversight to ensure that this is not the case.
The spectacle was organized by the Sweatfree Coalition – sponsored by Students Organizing for Labor and Equality and the University chapters of Amnesty International and the American Civil Liberties Union. Members wore facemasks and donned attire with witty slogans like “Fuck Sweatshops.” But aside from providing these rather vague clues, the protesters did little to inform onlookers about what they were actually protesting. The event seemingly culminated with the procession’s arrival at the Fleming Administration Building, but it turned out the fun was just getting started.
There, at the site of the office of University President Mary Sue Coleman, protesters waited for more than 15 minutes to hand deliver a letter to the president (who was unavailable) before dispersing. The letter urged administrators to sign onto the Designated Suppliers Program, which would limit production of University apparel to businesses that do not, according to the group, use sweatshop labor. It expressed concern that the University has been lax in its oversight of clothing product suppliers.
While the occasional conservative economist may hail the use of sweatshops – which involve long hours under dangerous conditions to make less in a day than most Americans do in an hour – by saying that they’re better than no work, most would agree that it is appalling for a university with the storied progressive history of this one to still have its logo emblazed upon the products of exploitative labor.
The University has taken action on this topic before, and the University’s Code of Conduct for Licensees already bans the use of forced or child labor by affiliated businesses. Unfortunately, the code can easily be neglected, because there is little oversight and its application to some sweatshops is ambiguous. The University can say that it will not partner with corporations that exploit workers, but it means very little if administrators fail to monitor the activities of manufacturers to enforce their own rules.
As such, the University should adopt the Designated Suppliers Program. Administrators have rightly expressed a commitment to boycotting the unethical treatment of labor, and they should honor that pledge by allowing a third party to monitor suppliers’ labor practices.
The Designated Suppliers Program can accurately provide the sort of judgments that are necessary in order for the Code of Conduct for Licensees to carry weight. Joining it will allow for necessary oversight that the University sorely lacks. The President’s Advisory Committee on Labor Standards and Human Rights considered this very action less than a year ago. The time has come to implement it.