Herb Ruffin, African American Studies Department Chair and associate professor in the College of Arts and Sciences, was interviewed for the WURD-FM (Philadelphia) story about the “100th anniversary of the Tulsa massacre.” Ruffin, who is an expert on Black settlements in…
Chancellor Q&A: Sweatshops
On March 27, Chancellor Kenneth A. Shaw stated that Syracuse University would become affiliated with the Worker Rights Consortium anti-sweatshop organization. SU is already a member of the Collegiate Living Wage Association and the Fair Labor Association. The Chancellor?s decision followed a recommendation by the University?s Trademark Licensing Advisory Board, which had been reviewing the issue of SU affiliation with the WRC since Fall 1999. The Chancellor sat down recently with Syracuse Record Editor Kelly Homan Rodoski to discuss the WRC and the issue of sweatshops.
Q: Why did it take so long to decide to join the WRC?
A: This decision, given its complexity, has not taken very long. One must remember that this is a very serious issue that will take continuous study and commitment over the next several years. We made a decision to join the Fair Labor Association. We made a decision to observe the Worker Rights Consortium?s progress and have, on several occasions, asked ourselves the question, “Is this an appropriate thing to do at this time?” We now believe it is time.
Syracuse University initially joined the FLA at a time when no other organization existed that monitored companies manufacturing collegiate merchandise. The FLA has developed and evolved significantly since its inception. The University has also adopted higher standards to the FLA Code, including full public disclosure of factory locations and protection of women?s rights.
The Worker Rights Consortium just recently became a legal entity, within the last four months. This January marked the hiring of an executive director, Mr. Scott Nova. His appointment has not only elevated the credibility of the WRC, but has also confirmed the direction and long-term objectives of the organization. Prior to his appointment, it was difficult to ascertain how the WRC would reach its goals without adequate funding and administrative support staff.
We still have reservations relative to the WRC?s budget (currently at $300,000), and its board composition (i.e., no corporate representation), but we believe that working from the inside at this time is in our best interest.
This will continue to be a work in progress, and we will evaluate the effectiveness of these groups and any others that might spring up. We might find that none of this works. We might find that it all works but we need to do something else. We will continue to study the situation.
Q: Why has the University decided to become involved with the WRC?
A: A very important reason is that the Trademark Licensing Advisory Board, which has conscientiously and thoroughly studied these issues over the years, has made a positive recommendation. Without their guidance and help, I wouldn?t feel qualified to make this decision.
The University has affiliated with the WRC because the combined effort of the FLA and the WRC will make the greatest difference for workers who manufacture collegiate merchandise. We feel that the WRC now has an organizational structure in place that can add value to the process and drive positive change in collaboration with multiple organizations. This was evidenced in the Mexican labor dispute at Kukdong with the involvement of the FLA, Nike, Verite (a nonprofit monitoring organization and an accredited monitor of the FLA), the WRC and the International Labor Rights Fund (ILRF).
Q: Will the University also remain involved with the Fair Labor Association?
A: Yes. The FLA has assumed a leadership role in the establishment of monitoring guidelines. The FLA has demonstrated a long-term commitment to many colleges and universities, including Syracuse University. Currently, the FLA has 152 member schools and a strong budget, more than $2 million. The FLA has grown, evolved and, although there is a long way to go, has made a visible difference. A strong foundation has been developed by the FLA with the initiation of pilot programs and projected NGO training programs, and with the consultation of the ILRF, in countries actively involved in the production of emblematic merchandise.
Q: Everyone involved in the process would like to achieve a common goal?fair working conditions in factories that produce collegiate licensed products. What do you see as the obstacles in achieving this goal?
A: The biggest obstacle is simply the size and complexity of where and how apparel is made. There are literally millions of workers all over the globe. That alone makes it far more complex. To give some idea of how difficult it is, there are sweatshops in the United States. If we in this country are unable to have 100 percent assurity, it?s clear that we are not going to reach a goal of perfection. But we should make a good faith effort.
Also, there are many social, cultural and economic challenges preventing this issue from achieving early success. Audits conducted through pilot programs have shown multiple violations by manufacturers and subcontractors. A fair living wage is difficult to assess. Dealing with international countries and their standard of living and quality of life, we must understand that U.S. standards cannot be applied. Wage earnings of a worker vary within a country. More investigative research will need to be conducted in order to promote an equitable and sustainable living wage.
Q: Will the University consider sending a student delegation on a fact-finding mission?
A: No. We have joined two organizations to help ensure compliance. We don?t have the resources to commit to student activities in this area.
Q: Do you think that the University will support course offerings on this topic?
A: I am supportive of there being courses that shed light rather than heat on the issues that underlie sweatshops. What is needed is an objective analysis of these issues, which would be an excellent learning experience for students. This, of course, requires that there be faculty members with sufficient interest and objectivity to want to undertake such a course.
We are reviewing how other schools have incorporated courses relating to this topic. We think that it presents interesting possibilities for our institution.