Who made your Michigan sweatshirt? This was the question posed to students who gathered in the School of Education for yesterday’s forum of the same name.
The forum featured Auret Van Heerden, the executive director of the Fair Labor Association – a collection of corporations that voluntarily agree to a code of labor conduct that applies to their entire supply chain.
Also speaking was Scott Nova, executive director of the Worker Rights Consortium, an independent group that monitors and enforces fair labor standards in industries that produce university logo goods. The FLA and WRC often collaborate on dealing with workers’ rights issues.
Van Heerden and Nova discussed the University’s ability to affect workers’ rights and working conditions.
“Globalization has outstripped all the existing methods of regulation we had,” Van Heerden said. He pointed out that private citizens and student activism can put pressure on industries to provide humane working conditions.
“In the export sector at least, we will ensure that these rights are respected,” he added.
Van Heerden emphasized the many ways students can get involved in the fair labor struggle. “Mobilizing on campuses is one of the best things you can do,” he said. He pointed to internships with monitoring organizations, field research at factories and campus activism as some methods of involvement.
Both Van Heerden and Nova emphasized the importance of unionization and collective bargaining to change industrial power structures at a grassroots level. “If you want to see sustainable change at a factory then you have to recognize that it’s much more likely to occur if workers are able to defend their own rights,” Nova said.
School of Public Health junior Richa Mittal, an audience member who has visited several Bengali sweatshops, said the personal testimonies of sweatshop workers will increase awareness of the real face of third-world labor.
Rather than ordering management level initiative, she proposes teaching workers about their own rights.
Students Organizing for Labor and Economic Equality member Mike Swiryn, an RC junior, said he was initially dubious of hearing an FLA representative speak.
“I think that there should be a great amount of emphasis on the fact that the FLA can’t function without the WRC,” he said. “It’s been the experience of people that the FLA has served as a smokescreen for corporate abuse.”
Other members of SOLE agreed, but said they noticed some change in the FLA’s stance lately. “They seem definitely for workers’ rights in what they’re saying,” said SOLE member Adrian Esquivel, an RC junior. He questioned whether these changes would translate into actions in the future.
The panel discussion was presented by the University Committee on Labor Standards and Human Rights, SOLE and the Peace and Justice Committee for the Michigan Student Assembly.