March 27, 2012

Progress Report for Labor Rights

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Cornell trustees have a fiduciary responsibility to the University as a whole — we are obligated to always act in Cornell’s best interest when carrying out our duties. Sometimes, that means acting as financial stewards and sometimes it means protecting Cornell’s moral integrity. I want to talk about the latter.

In our strategic plan, Cornell committed to being “a model university for the interweaving of liberal education and fundamental knowledge with practical education and impact on societal and world problems.” Since adopting that statement, Cornell has had an impact on a variety of societal and world problems: We committed to make the University carbon-neutral by 2050 and President Skorton has advocated for the rights of undocumented students on a national scale. Tuesday, a news article in The Sun addressed the University’s stance in another realm, declaring “Skorton Vows to Enforce University’s Labor Standards.” The article referred to a specific event — a letter sent to the Fair Labor Association threatening to cut ties if the organization does not improve its monitoring procedures — but the title insinuates a further reaching commitment. Which begs the question, how is Cornell doing in enforcing our labor standards?

Cornell must maintain a strong commitment to workers’ rights. Workers’ rights are human rights. Having basic protection from physical, mental and sexual abuse in the workplace is not guaranteed for many employees worldwide. Apparel factories throughout the world violate their own labor standards 12 times in an average day. Over 95 percent of factories violate health and safety rules, 74 percent break overtime standards, and 34 percent even ignore forced labor requirements. And all of this data is from the FLA, the same group that the University is threatening to disaffiliate from due to its ineffectiveness, meaning the real number of violations could be even higher.

This issue affects Cornell in at least four ways. How we as a university choose to act will give insight into the true value of workers’ rights at Cornell.

The first issue is how we deal with our own employees. Only a few decades ago, Cornell workers struggled to organize a labor union, even as the value of unions was proclaimed in ILR classrooms. Today, Cornell is recognized by many organizations as an exemplary employer, including the AARP, Working Mother and the US Department of Labor. In June, Cornell will get a chance to prove just how great an employer it is when it negotiates a new collective bargaining agreement with the local union.

The second issue is how we allow outside employees to be treated on our campuses. Weill-Cornell Medical College in Qatar has made incredible strides for women’s education rights in Qatar. By most accounts, it treats well those that it directly employs, such as faculty members. But workers that help build, repair and service the campus, employed by the Qatar Foundation, do not have such protection. Two years ago, New York University adopted a code of conduct for its Abu Dhabi campus, requiring basic protection for any worker on its grounds, whether or not they were NYU employees. Recently, Provost Laurie Glimcher expressed interest in reaching out to NYU to learn about their program, and explore whether it could be implemented on our campus.

The third issue is how we allow the employees of our business partners to be treated. The FLA exists to monitor the factories in which Cornell apparel is made. However, flaws in their procedures compromise their ability to give fair inspections. President Skorton is right to threaten disaffiliation; an ineffective monitor only undermines our efforts to protect workers’ rights. On April 30, if the FLA has not changed, the University should follow through with its threat.

The fourth issue is how we work to improve labor rights. Six years ago, Cornell signed on to the principles of the Designated Supplier Program. The program requires licensees to gradually increase the percentage of their apparel made in compliant factories that respect workers’ basic rights, including paying a living wage. It has been held up for five years due to antitrust concerns. However, in December, the Department of Justice issued a positive Business Review Letter ruling that the DSP did not violate established antitrust laws. In response, Georgetown University just committed to implementing the DSP by the summer, and Cornell can take a powerful stand by joining Georgetown and leading the way for immediate implementation.

By the end of this semester, Cornell will have crucial decisions to make on each of these issues. In all four cases, President Skorton’s vow to enforce labor standards will be tested. I believe that in all four, Cornell will act in a way that protects its moral integrity.

Alex Bores is the undergraduate student-elected trustee and a junior in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. He may be reached at awb78@cornell.edu. Trustee Viewpoint appears alternate Tuesdays this semester.

Original Author: Alex Bores