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Fair conditions


Arizona Daily Wildcat

By Deron Overpeck
Arizona Daily Wildcat,
February 4, 2000
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In the continuing controversy over labor rights in non-developed countries, UA President Peter Likins is under heat for aligning the university with the Fair Labor Association, a monitoring organization comprised of university and corporate members. The local chapter of Students Against Sweatshops, suspicious of the FLA's commitment to actual change, has urged President Likins to join the Workers' Rights Consortium, a more progressive monitoring organization. Because the WRC is more dedicated to addressing the problem, President Likins should withdraw from the FLA and join the WRC.

The FLA is designed to monitor human rights abuses, but organizational flaws would hamper its ability to fulfill its purpose. The common element in each of these flaws is the inclusion of corporations in FLA membership. Although allowing the interests of companies such as Nike and Reebok to be heard may be justifiable on fairness grounds, it also opens the monitoring process up to abuses by those corporations.

First of all, the corporations on the FLA board would have the ability to undermine the pledge of the FLA to perform unannounced inspections of clothing factories. The sincerity of President Likins' and other university presidents' commitment to unannounced monitoring is not the question here. Many probably have the best intentions of ameliorating the deplorable conditions in the sweatshops used by the corporations. But the corporations probably don't have the best intentions.

Unannounced visits simply are not in Adidas', Converse's and Logo's best interests. Membership in the FLA allows them access to information regarding which factories will be visited and when, permitting them time to temporarily fix labor code violations. At the same time, their membership allows these corporations to claim they are trying to improve working conditions in their factories. The FLA is thus fatally flawed by a conflict of interests. It provides benefits to the organizations it is supposed to be monitoring.

By excluding corporations from membership, the WRC avoids this conflict of interest. Instead of cultivating relationships with Phil Knight and his ilk, the WRC is building a network of contacts in the localities where the factories are located. These relationships will allow the organization to act in concert with and on behalf of the people they are supposed to be assisting, not the corporations they are supposed to be monitoring. First-hand knowledge of living conditions and political customs will put them in a better position to address issues of occupational and personal safety, and wage standards.

But the WRC also would keep pressure on corporations and universities to institute real, lasting changes. The FLA would take its name literally; it would monitor factories for human rights abuses but not suggest any remedy stronger than a reprimand or cosmetic change to the facility. The corporate presence in FLA would see to that. Their presence in the association justifies concerns that the FLA is designed more to protect corporate practices than actively challenge them. It would put a safe face on an exploitive system by offering the appearance of a legitimate independent monitoring organization. The underlying problem - an economic and social system that requires the objectification of people as exploitable labor - would be safe from criticism.

The WRC offers a better chance of providing something other than that safe face. Its burgeoning connections with people in sweatshops will provide a forum for the voices of people traditionally left out of these controversies. Decisions about policy in corporate sweatshops would no longer be left only to corporate and university presidents, but would involve the needs of the people who will be most directly affected by them.

The UA was one of the founding members of the FLA. Pulling out would send a strong message that business as usual cannot and will not be tolerated. An alliance with the WRC would put the university in the vanguard of rights movements and present a unique, progressive image.

We all (hopefully) look forward to a day when monitoring organizations like FLA and WRC are unnecessary. But that day will not come until more than mere cosmetic changes are made. President Likins should do the right thing and join a group that will insist on real change.

Deron Overpeck is a graduate student in Media Arts. He can be reached at editor@wildcat.arizona.edu.

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