An Alternative to Company-Controlled Monitoring
Colleges and universities across the United States have adopted Codes of Conduct to govern the conditions under which their licensed goods are produced. University students have been advocating for these codes as a first step to improving the labor conditions under which university-licensed goods are produced. While the terms of those Codes will continue to be debated, the method for enforcing Codes has itself become a center of debate and protest.
The Worker Rights Consortium has been developed by United Students Against Sweatshops in consultation with workers and human rights groups. The intent is to provide a system for enforcing Codes that is straightforward, practicable, consistent with the mission and role of universities, and likely to have the most widespread effect in changing the actual behavior of licensees and their subcontractors. Most importantly, we believe that coupled with strong Codes of Conduct, this enforcement process will be most likely to benefit workers.
Sweatshops are proliferating and the living standards of workers declining because the abuse of cheap labor is a competitive strategy of many companies in the industry. Reversing this trend requires that licensees themselves make dramatic changes in how they produce (or "source") their products.
Universities are responsible for enforcing contract provisions that require decent working conditions in factories producing their licensed products. Companies must develop their own internal process to comply with these provisions. The university's role should be limited to requiring outcomes: the decent working conditions mandated by their Codes of Conduct. As the verifier of compliance, the University should not have a stake in company-controlled monitoring, through its participation or endorsement.
Sweatshops flourish when they are hidden. Greater transparency is a core requirement of an effective verification system. Companies that are required to reveal their contractors will have greater incentive to assure that these contractors abide by the university principles.
Moreover, information gathered should be made available to workers and worker-allied groups in the producing regions, serving as an additional check on company-reported data.
Given that there are tens of thousands of garment factories nestled in dozens and dozens of countries, it is impossible for the University to know with certainty that all factories are complying with conditions set by the Code. Experience has shown that factories are often "cleaned up" for short periods of time, but then return to significantly violating the Code. One-time investigations often just cover up poor working conditions. Hence, certifying "compliance" of an entire corporation or factory is ultimately impossible and only extends the probability that the name of the University will be lent to companies that are still be profiting off of abusive working conditions.
There is a need for "responsive" investigations of alleged workplace abuses, so that workers and their allies have a way to substantiate claims of abuse. University decision-makers similarly need a way to verify workers complaints so that they can take action to enforce the licensing agreement.
Furthermore, there is a need for "pro-active" investigations, to shine the spotlight on workplaces in countries that suppress worker organization, and to do further fact-finding about the workplaces of licensees that have demonstrated patterns of violations.
The combination of maximum public information, and limited but completely independent investigations provides a powerful incentive to licensees to make systemic changes in how they source their products.
Failure to abide by this principle should be seen by Universities as a serious violation. Otherwise, there would be a perverse incentive for workers not to report conditions.
Due to the highly varied and constantly developing situations in apparel-producing regions across the world, verification methods must be flexible and responsive. The Worker Rights Consortium will work to develop and revise its programs in consultation with workers, human rights groups, and other interests, including apparel-producing companies.
Worker Rights Consortium Verification Model
The three primary components of Worker Rights Consortium verification are: public disclosure, spot investigatory capacity, and the use of the licensing agreement as leverage.
From this system, a large amount of public, self-reported industry information will be generated. The following effects are anticipated:
The Consortium will play the role of sorting, tabulating and publicizing the reported information. The broad public disclosure of information allows stakeholders to compare firms and specifically utilizes public awareness of company practices to create incentives for improvements
Instead of attempting to create a comprehensive monitoring regime in order to certify companies, the Worker Rights Consortium will use limited but carefully targeted investigatory resources to hold companies accountable. Comprehensive monitoring is ultimately a management tool for companies to use. Independent investigations, conducted on a spot-check basis, are nevertheless important because they put teeth into the licensing agreement and accountability into the relationship with licensees.
Coupled with broad-based public disclosure, spot investigations force each licensee to recognize that any plant located around the world can bring negative exposure at any time. Furthermore, a licensee that has been found to have factories with violations will feel even more pressure, since additional exposures will demonstrate a pattern of abuse and jeopardize the licensees relationship with universities.
Member colleges and universities will fund the Consortium with a percentage of licensing revenue. For a college or university that collects royalties from a licensing program, initial dues shall be 1% of its previous year's licensing revenues (but in no case less than $1,000 and with each year's dues payment capped at $50,000 for any individual college or university). For a college or university that does not collect royalties from a licensing program, annual dues shall be $1,000. These dues provisions will be reevaluated once the costs of running the Consortium become clearer.
The investigatory agency of the Worker Rights Consortium will operate on the following principles:
Because the methodology proposed is spot investigations rather than comprehensive monitoring, it will be possible to establish this system with comparatively little resources.
University resources for investigations shall be used in the following ways:
One role for the investigatory agency is to verify complaints when they surface. In the debate on campuses, this has been referred to as the "fire alarm" method for triggering inspections: workers are empowered to pull the alarm, signaling to the agency and the public that a violation has occurred. The agency is then responsible for verifying the complaint. Both verification and pro-active inspections must include both on-site inspections and off-site worker interviews.
Additional resources will go into unannounced spot investigations at the places most at risk: countries and regions that suppress workers rights, and companies with a pattern of violation. Again, the power of these investigations is that the licensees are expected to comprehensively change their labor and sourcing practices to ensure compliance any violation is evidence of negligence or worse on the part of the licensee.
Once violations at a site have been confirmed, the pressure on the licensee will be to improve conditions, rather than to shut down factories where violations have been found. Otherwise, there would be an incentive for workers not to report abusive conditions. Licensees will not be allowed to distance themselves from violations by claiming that fault lies with a subcontractorinstead, licensees are fully responsible for all factories producing their products. The Consortium will also play the critical role of keeping the spotlight on the licensees response to exposure of bad practices at specific sites. The Consortium will require reporting of remediation steps, will conduct further inspections, and will evaluate whether or not a company has adequately remediated identified violations.
We recognize that there are many outstanding questions that require further research. It is the unique role of Universities to be centers of inquiry, and therefore one additional role of the Consortium is to promote research activities into questions such as setting living wages, methods for investigating workplaces, etc.
The Worker Rights Consortium does not aim to set up a permanent system of factory policing, contributing to the privatization of national labor law enforcement. Rather, the Consortium aims to build capacity and open up the space for workers and their allies to advocate on their own behalf. The Consortium will engage in efforts to educate workers about their own rights and consistently partner with local worker-allied groups for investigations. The scope of such educational efforts and the mechanisms by which workers will file complaints are still issues being debated by organizations in producing regions. These efforts will need to be responsive to the political dynamics specific to each area. They will be developed, reexamined, and revised based upon further consultation with worker-allied groups and practical experience.
Currently, the Worker Rights Consortium does not mandate specific penalties to be applied to licensees that are in violation of Codes of Conduct. Instead, it is left to the individual college or university to determine a plan of recourse. However, the Consortium will establish a system of guidelines for such penalties with which to advise participating universities that wish to impose sanctions in response to violations. Failure to disclose required information, along with Code violations, will instigate the recommendation of sanctions.
It must be noted that the ultimate penalty is termination of the licensing agreement when a pattern of violations is shown. It is likely there will be clear cases of such patterns, and termination of contract with specific licensees will motivate the rest of the industry to improve. Termination is not a first step in response to violations, but must be one that universities are willing to take.
Worker Rights Consortium Implementation Process
An Advisory Council is currently being assembled, consisting of representatives who have significant expertise in the issues surrounding worker abuses in the apparel industry and independent verification of labor standards in apparel factories. In the effort to end sweatshop abuses, the Advisory Council will serve as a mechanism for key actors to examine the many unresolved issues surrounding independent verification. The Advisory Council will also be charged with providing overall guidance to the investigatory agency and helping to establish the governing board.
A 12-person Governing Board will work toward implementing a system for discovering and disseminating information about factory compliance with the Codes of Conduct, based on these principles and taking direction from the Advisory Council. The Governing Board will be comprised of 3 students selected by the United Students Against Sweatshops, 3 university administrators chosen from among the participating colleges and universities, and 6 representatives from the advisory board.
The process will begin by establishing pilot projects in various regions, based on the model outlined in this document. These projects will inform further development of the Worker Rights Consortium. Of primary importance in the first stage will be gathering information from licensees about which factories are making university apparel.
The Worker Rights Consortium is a conceptual and practical alternative to industry-controlled monitoring organizations. United Students Against Sweatshops is convinced that, no matter how well-intentioned these organizations may be, their effect will be to relieve the pressure to clean up the industry, to cover up abuses, and to lend the credibility of a Universitys name to the very companies that have created the global sweatshop system.
The Worker Rights Consortium outlined above is less grandiose, but significantly more potent. A critical mass of college and university members will create enough leverage to dictate the terms of the licensing agreements to the industry and implement tough Codes and a powerful enforcement process fully and quickly.
The Worker Rights Consortium is a way for universities to at once protect their good names and their licensing business, while catalyzing change in this industry on behalf of the workers who toil to sew t-shirts and glue together sneakers.
Appendix: Worker Rights Consortium Code of Conduct
The Worker Rights Consortium will use this Code of Conduct as the basis for its investigations into fair treatment in licensees factories. Universities may adopt this Code as the standard that it will require of its licensees.
Throughout the Code the term "Licensee" shall include all persons or entities which have entered into a written "License Agreement" with the University manufacture "Licensed Articles" (as that term is defined in the License Agreement) bearing the names, trademarks and/or images of one or more Member Institutions. The term "Licensee" shall for purposes of the Code, and unless otherwise specified in the Code, encompass all of Licensees' contractors, subcontractors or manufacturers which produce, assemble or package finished Licensed Articles for the consumer.