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Release: March 20, 2000

UI panel makes four recommendations to combat sweatshop abuses

IOWA CITY, Iowa -- The University of Iowa Committee on Human Rights today released its findings and recommendations for responding to sweatshop conditions in the university apparel industry.

Noting that it is a "challenge to find effective ways to eradicate" sweatshop abuses and that there are potential difficulties with two different national organizations formed to do so, the committee recommended that the UI discontinue its affiliation with the Fair Labor Association (FLA) and "actively explore" affiliation with the Workers Rights Consortium (WRC). As part of exploring affiliation with the WRC, the UI should send representatives to a WRC conference scheduled for April 7 in New York, the committee said.

In addition, the committee recommended the appointment of an advisory council of faculty, staff and students to draft a "rigorous" code of conduct for companies licensed to make UI apparel. That code should include full public disclosure of the location of factories, age of workers, minimum wage, maximum hours and benefit plans, the committee said. It should also include guidelines and procedures for canceling licensing agreements.

In response, UI President Mary Sue Coleman announced that the UI will send a three-person UI delegation to the WRC conference. The UI delegation consists of Marcella David, professor of law; Laraine Carmichael Nelson, a UI staff member who chairs the Committee on Human Rights; and Ned Bertz, a UI student and a member of the Students Against Sweatshops.

President Coleman is also moving to appoint members of an advisory committee to draft a code of conduct. However, she said she preferred to wait before making a decision on withdrawing from the FLA. "I believe it is too soon to tell how effective either of these organizations can be in achieving meaningful reforms in the production of university apparel," she said. "For now, I believe the most prudent course is to monitor the activities of both the Fair Labor Association and the Workers Rights Consortium."

The report of the Committee on Human Rights acknowledged the difficulty of judging the effectiveness of the FLA and the WRC. "The issues at hand are highly complex," the committee wrote. "Although sweatshop conditions are reprehensible, it is a challenge to find effective ways to eradicate them. While both the FLA and WRC claim to be effective, there are complaints about both organizations."

According to the report, these are criticisms of the FLA:

  • It lacks sufficient monitoring
  • Apparel manufacturers are notified before factories are checked
  • It does not require full disclosure of factory locations
  • The governing and voting structure is advantageous to companies, not workers
  • It allows excessive hours of work per week
  • It does not advocate that workers have the right to unionize

Similarly, the committee noted these criticisms of WRC:

  • It is not yet well-formed and therefore is an unknown quantity
  • It takes an adversarial role towards companies and uses measures that can disadvantage native workers
  • It advocates barring imports from places not maintaining a "living wage," which is a nebulous and hard-to-quantify property
  • It is limited to factories producing apparel as opposed to including all licensees of affiliated colleges and universities

In suggesting that the UI adopt its own code of conduct, the Committee on Human Rights pointed to the examples of Duke and Notre Dame, which have adopted their own codes of conduct for licensees producing apparel with their logos. Both require disclosure of the locations of factories.

President Coleman agreed with the need for the UI to adopt its own code of conduct, but she also said it would be important to work with other universities to avoid a proliferation of widely varying codes of conduct. The UI is already consulting with other Big Ten universities on the issue, she noted.