October 2, 2002

Speakers Argue for Fair Labor Practices

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Addressing inadequate working conditions in sweatshops worldwide, executive directors of the Fair Labor Association (FLA) and the Worker Rights Consortium (WRC) spoke last night at Barnes Hall. Auret van Heerden of the FLA and Scott Nova of the WRC discussed the accomplishments and futures of their organizations to an audience of about 50 people.

Formed in 1996 and 1999 respectively, the FLA and WRC work with colleges and universities to improve working conditions in factories that manufacture university-brand apparel.

Cornell belongs to both organizations, and the FLA recently chose Henrik N. Dullea ’61, vice president for University relations, to serve on their executive committee. Dullea said his job on the committee consists of “meeting and discussing the University’s perspectives on the FLA.”

“I think my membership … on the FLA demonstrates the level of attention Cornell is giving to this issue,” Dullea said.

Speaking Up

Van Heerden opened the event with a description of the model labor situation in factories. The ideal “hierarchy of protection” would include places for workers to report poor conditions and agencies that would enforce change.

“It would be a kind of safety net … [however], the reality is very, very different,” he said.

Van Heerden said the FLA steps in to enforce labor laws and compensate for the inadequate number of inspectors in various countries. However, he said, the FLA cannot accomplish this task alone. Of the 50,000 textile factories worldwide, the FLA can only monitor about 3,000.

“We have to do it in concert … we need a critical mass,” he said.

He said consumers can help this effort just by asking, “How did this product get to my table?”

To help customers locate information, van Heerden hopes to increase the “transparency” of the FLA’s actions.

“I think we have to open up to public scrutiny the entire chain of responsibility,” he said.

In the future, he sees the FLA expanding their efforts from monitoring to establishing networks in which workers can take control of their rights.

Following van Heerden, Nova described working in an Indonesian factory with manufacturer PT Data.

When the WRC first came in to inspect the factory, he said, they found management requiring workers to go shoeless and bring work home with them after long hours of overtime. Management also punished laborers for taking sick leave and attempting to form a union.

After working with a monitoring team from the WRC, employees can now wear sandals, do not have to bring work home and have access to clean, safe drinking water on the job. Currently, the factory does not retaliate against employees taking sick leave and is in negotiations with a worker-organized union.

“We’ve seen … a very radical transformation of standards in this factory,” Nova said.

Nova sees this change as a goal to strive for at other factories.

“It does show change can happen,” he said.

Both van Heerden and Nova answered questions from the audience before ending the presentation.

Although they hold the same goals, the organization of the two groups differs substantially. While the WRC considers themselves independent, the FLA works closely with corporations to monitor their factories. The group United Students Against Sweatshops originally founded the WRC to counteract what they believed were unfair monitoring processes in the FLA.

In years past, some students involved in Cornell Students Against Sweatshops (CSAS) disagreed with the University’s involvement with the FLA, believing that the FLA’s monitoring practices pandered to corporations. However, both the students and the organizations seem to have moved past their differences.

Andres Blanco ’03, president of CSAS, said he thinks Dullea’s increasing involvement with the FLA will not affect the University’s relationship with the WRC.

“I think it’s great one of our spokespeople has an executive position on the board,” he said.

Archived article by Shannon Brescher