May 7, 2011

Cornell Students Against Sweatshops Hosts Official From Association It Decries

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Cornell Students Against Sweatshops continued its fight against the Fair Labor Association, an anti-sweatshop group CSAS claims has failed to crack down on international labor abuses, in a talk Wednesday with FLA Executive Director Jorge Perez-Lopez.

At the discussion — during which students raised concerns and posed questions to Perez-Lopez — CSAS criticized FLA, to which Cornell pays dues, for not doing enough to ensure its member companies are running their overseas factories in compliance with FLA’s code of conduct for labor rights.

The dialogue between CSAS and Perez-Lopez followed a series of letters written by CSAS to FLA and University administrators calling for Cornell to cut ties with the association. In January, President David Skorton told CSAS that the administration would not support ending Cornell’s relationship with FLA “until an adequate dialogue … had been realized,” according to Casey Sweeney ’13, a regional organizer for United Students Against Sweatshops.

After the conversation, Sweeney said CSAS still believes the University should sever ties with FLA. She added she was particularly dissatisfied with Perez-Lopez’s response to whether the FLA has implemented changes in response to concerns expressed by students nationwide.

“To hear from him directly that the FLA has not changed at all in response to these concerns that we’re raising shows that there is fundamental disconnect between the FLA’s values and the values of students,” Sweeney said.

Alex Bores ’13, liaison between CSAS and United States Association of Students, pressed Perez-Lopez on why the FLA had not raised its standards for labor conditions to match those of Cornell and the Worker Rights Consortium, Cornell’s other non-profit anti-sweatshop affiliate.

Perez-Lopez responded that the board of the FLA stands by its current code of conduct, which he said has led the organization to make progress in several areas of workers’ rights.

Much of the conversation focused on a few prominent cases, involving companies such as Nike and Russell Athletic, for which CSAS believes the FLA did not seek “outcomes that the University considers hugely successful for the workers,” according to Sweeney.

CSAS members said that the FLA board, which includes corporations such as Nike and Adidas that give money to FLA, prioritizes its corporate interests over potential labor violations. Perez-Lopez rejected accusations that the board of directors influences the monitoring of factories for conduct breaches.

“The board sets general policy,” Perez-Lopez said. “It does not get involved in monitoring. We have a complete separation between the policy-making board and the professional staff that acts as the implementing arm.”

Cornell is one of several universities at which students are currently petitioning administrators for disaffiliation from the FLA. Wednesday’s dialogue was broadcast live online to allow other branches of USAS to participate by emailing in their questions. Bores fielded inquiries from students at Georgetown, University of Chicago and Penn State, among other schools.

The fight to withdraw Cornell from FLA membership has been ongoing since the University participated in the creation of the FLA in 1996, according to Sweeney.

“More than a decade later we are still raising the same concerns,” Sweeney said. “We have found that the FLA is not adequately doing its job in engaging work operations in a productive way that leads to good solutions for workers and for students.”

Original Author: Rebecca Harris