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Worker Rights Consortium Conference

New York City, April 7, 2000

Executive Summary

On April 7th, three delegates from The University of Iowa (UI)—Marcella David, professor of law and expert on human rights issues; Marc Beltrame, law student and member of the Board of Control of Athletics; and Laraine Carmichael Nelson, chair of the UI Committee on Human Rights—attended the founding conference of the Worker Rights Consortium (WRC). They were joined by approximately 150 other representatives of 44 colleges and universities across the country to listen to panels and participate in discussions and caucuses about anti-sweatshop initiatives. Although the WRC is still in its infancy, it shows promise. According to the three UI delegates, the fact that The University of Iowa has decided to join at this juncture is advantageous to both. They jointly summarize their experiences as follows.

  • The WRC is an organization committed to shining a light on human rights abuses in the apparel industry. Independent monitoring of apparel factories at the local level is the primary vehicle for achieving the goal of improving conditions for workers.

  • It is not the goal of the WRC to close down employment opportunities for workers in developing countries. The WRC wants to turn back the "race to the bottom" that apparel companies are currently engaged in with respect to labor practices.

  • While the WRC offers promise in terms of improving working conditions, certain organizational challenges stand in the way of implementing a thorough independent monitoring system at the local level.

  • Students and universitiesætwo of the three constituency groups that are to hold seats on the WRC corporate boardæwant more representation than the current framework provides.


Organizational Goals and Structure

The organizers of the WRC presented these as its goals:

  • to provide accurate information to universities
  • to give voice to the workers

According to organizers, the WRC also has three main components:

  • broad-based public disclosure
  • verification of worker complaints
  • spot investigations


The WRC has three constituents:

  • Students, many, but not all, of whom are members of United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS).

  • Colleges and universities, both large Big Ten schools and other universities, as well as smaller colleges like Middlebury, Brown, and Haverford.

  • Advisory Council, to be comprised of 16 members including representatives from human rights organizations in Honduras, Guatemala, Hong Kong, South Africa, and the Philippines as well as the United States.


According to documents presented to delegates, three student members, three university members, and six Advisory Council members are to constitute the Governing Board, which is the primary decision-making body for the WRC.

 

Outstanding Issues and Delegate Concerns

  • The draft by-laws distributed prior to the conference require serious revision to allow for an uneven number of board members, a more equitable representation of students and college/university members, and rotations that allow for institutional memory.

  • The Model Code of Conduct uses OSHA standards as a floor for health and safety, which may not be a realistic expectation in foreign countries.

  • No standards for selecting monitors have been established.

  • The timeline appears unrealistic. In particular, the diversity of views on the part of the various schools prevented any quick resolution of the many tasks assigned.

  • The WRC needs a means by which it can engage industry in a productive manner.

  • Some student participants voiced anti-administration sentiments that the group did not find helpful.

  • Attacks on the FLA were seen as counter-productive to the cause.


In regard to this issue, organizing members said that they feel it is necessary for constituents to separate the United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS) from the WRC. The WRC doesn’t have an official "stance" about the FLA. Rather, organizing members said, the two can be complimentary.

Plan of Action

  • The conference was very informative, and also offered an opportunity for networking. However, a great deal of work still needs to be undertaken by the WRC and its delegates. To this end, the following action plan was developed:

  • There was an agreement by the college/university constituents to schedule a subsequent meeting to take place in Chicago in about two weeks.

  • There was an agreement to keep in touch via a closed list serve.

  • The college/university group would explore with the working groups the possibility of increasing the board membership, but in the interim the three representatives selected should reflect the level of financial support of the various institutions.

  • Five working groups were formed to advise the Board on issues to consider. These include:
  • Administration, organization, and staffing
  • Bylaws and governance
  • Data collection and analysis
  • Networking with local non-government officials (NGOs) and human rights groups.
  • Broad-based disclosure to solicit information from licensees


University of Iowa delegates will continue to be involved in this process. Marcella David volunteered to be part of the four-member university task force and will plan the contours of the next college/university meeting. Both she and Laraine Carmichael Nelson volunteered to participate on the working groups, while Marc Beltrame, who is soon to graduate, provides advisory support to them.