University of Pittsburgh heats up over sweatshops
By Alex Zimmerman
Feb. 24, 2013 – When Joe Thomas dropped off a letter signed by 25 student organizations at University of Pittsburgh chancellor Mark Nordenberg’s office, he thought he’d get a response.
When he didn’t get one, he helped persuade 24 more student organizations — including Pitt’s student government board — to drop off letters themselves.
"We were dropping off letters just about every day," Mr. Thomas said.
The letters ask Pitt to affiliate with the Worker Rights Consortium, an independent monitoring organization that works with 180 universities across the country to investigate factories where university-licensed apparel is manufactured.
The consortium publishes the results of all of its investigations and often resolves worker rights abuses without university involvement.
Affiliation does not require universities to sever contracts with companies that have violations in their factories. But they are encouraged to use the results of investigations to ensure fair labor practices in factories where their logo goods are made.
Local affiliates include Duquesne, Carlow and Carnegie Mellon universities.
The debate about whether Pitt should affiliate with the consortium has generated increasing tension between students and administrators.
Student members of the Pitt chapter of Americans for Informed Democracy, an organization co-founded by Mr. Thomas, contend that Pitt should not be satisfied with its current affiliation with the Fair Labor Association, another organization that works with universities to monitor factory conditions.
Members of Americans for Informed Democracy and various labor rights activists across the country have criticized the Fair Labor Association for being funded by the companies it investigates, conducting interviews with workers while factory supervisors are present and overlooking freedom of association violations that keep workers from unionizing.
Despite those concerns, Heeral Coleman, the Fair Labor Association’s director of communications and outreach, maintains that their monitoring program is independent and continuously improving.
Ms. Coleman acknowledged that the association receives some of its funding from the corporations it investigates but said they are not involved in the monitoring process itself.
She said the association has found at least one violation in every factory it has investigated and made the results available to the public, including its nearly 200 university affiliates.
Leaders of the Pitt group are unconvinced that the association can maintain its independence if any of its funding comes from the companies it monitors.
"It doesn’t take a genius economist to see that that’s a huge conflict of interest in the monitoring process," Mr. Thomas said. "Who do you want paying for investigations? The people who are being investigated?"
Both the Fair Labor Association and Worker Rights Consortium require that universities pay 1 percent of their licensing fees up to $50,000 annually in dues. Many universities, including Penn State, affiliate with both organizations.
Scott Nova, Worker Rights Consortium executive director, said it takes no money from for-profit corporations or unions and is funded mostly by universities and grants.
Mr. Nova said Pitt has not approached the consortium to discuss potential affiliation. "We would certainly welcome having Pitt as an affiliate," he said.
"We have workers dying by the dozens in Bangladesh in fires," he said. "That’s happening in 2012, more than a decade after universities started asking companies to protect the basic rights of workers in their supply chains."
Leaders of Americans for Informed Democracy at Pitt have had trouble getting the university to explain why it has not considered affiliating with the Worker Rights Consortium.
About a month after the letter campaign started, Kathy Humphrey, Pitt’s vice provost and dean of students, and vice chancellor G. Reynolds Clark sat with Mr. Thomas and resident student association president Wasi Mohamed.
Mr. Thomas said Ms. Humphrey and Mr. Clark listened to their concerns but said they "didn’t see the point of joining" the consortium and questioned student support for affiliating.
In an effort to rally student support, Americans for Informed Democracy at Pitt joined with United Students Against Sweatshops to bring two Indonesian factory workers to Pitt last week.
The workers, Heni Sutisna and Aslam Hidayat, said they were denied severance pay owed them by Adidas, a company that contracted with the factory they worked at in Indonesia called PT Kizone.
Ms. Humphrey made an appearance before the event started and spoke briefly with Mr. Hidayat and Ms. Sutisna with help from an interpreter.
The workers said they were surprised to meet the dean of students after being on campus for such a short time.
"We’re here representing workers who have been exploited by Adidas. Our lives have become dire and very difficult," one of the workers said through the interpreter.
Asked by an organizer about Pitt’s position on Worker Rights Consortium affiliation, Ms. Humphrey said, "We’re waiting on [students] to work hard."
When a reporter asked her to clarify the comment, she said, "We have made a decision. We are with an organization we think is doing the same thing. We will listen to students," a response that frustrated and confused students.
Mr. Thomas called the university’s position on affiliation "amorphous."
"It’s amorphous in the sense that on one hand they say they’re open to listening to us," he said. "But on the other hand [Ms. Humphrey] is completely unwilling to compromise or entertain the idea of signing on to the WRC."
Asked to clarify the university’s position, spokesman John Fedele wrote in an email, "The University is satisfied with the Fair Labor Association and its work in this area."
Charles Kernaghan, director of the Institute for Global Labour and Human Rights, a Pittsburgh based nonprofit that helps independently monitor factories, said joining the WRC should be a "no-brainer."
"I would think that [Ms. Humphrey] would be ecstatic that the students want to do something … that they care and are engaged in poverty and exploitation across the world," he said. "I think it’s a big mistake on the part of Pitt."
In front of about 70 students, Ms. Sutisna said it was difficult to keep her family together after the PT Kizone factory closed.
"My husband became sick and began coughing up blood, but we were unable to take him to a doctor," she said. "In Indonesia, you eat rice every day. We couldn’t even afford rice."
Adidas disputes the claim that it owes workers $1.8 million in severance pay.
"The central fact remains that the PT Kizone factory was unethically closed and abandoned by its owner, not by the Adidas Group, and this occurred more than six months after we placed our last order with them," the company wrote in a statement.
The dispute between PT Kizone workers and Adidas highlights the problem consumers, brands and governments often have with assigning responsibility for poor working conditions.
Mr. Hidayat ended his story by asking Pitt students to put pressure on university administrators. "I would like to ask you now, my friends … will you send a letter to your administration, your president?"
The students answered, "Yes we will."
Alex Zimmerman: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-3909 . Twitter: @AGZimmerman.
First Published February 25, 2013 12:00 am