Cornell University just dropped its contract with sports apparel juggernaut Adidas amid allegations that after the closing of an Indonesian factory, the company neglected to compensate over 2,700 workers with the $1.8 million dollars they were due. The University of Wisconsin-Madison also contracts with Adidas, and has raised similar concerns over workers’ rights in Asia, but has been reluctant to sever its contract. Instead, the university has filed a lawsuit with Dane County District Court, claiming that company violated a code of conduct.
Critics have argued that the UW has prioritized finances over workers’ rights. Not only is the university’s lucrative sponsorship worth an estimated $2.5 million, but Interim Chancellor David Ward was also concerned Adidas might sue the UW if the contract were terminated. Meanwhile, factory workers still haven’t received wages or severance pay.
Others have claimed that initiating a drawn out legal process is merely a stall tactic – a means of retaining the Adidas sponsorship while giving the appearance of a concern for workers’ rights – as the university stands on a fence, balancing its own financial interests with those of labor activists. While the UW has filed a lawsuit over Adidas’s unethical practices, Cornell bypassed legal action entirely, taking matters into its own hands and ending its business relationship with the company. Shouldn’t the UW do the same?
No, not at all. Despite criticisms that the administration is procrastinating on this decision, looking for any excuse to maintain a lucrative business relationship – even if Adidas has a questionable history of business ethics – the UW is taking the right course of action.
Workers’ rights in developing countries aren’t going to be improved by outraged activists verbally lambasting multinational corporations, organizing boycotts and convincing the UW to break business ties. The workers’ rights will, however, start improving once consumers, clients and contracts demand economic and social justice for factory laborers, and the UW is in a position to do just that. A legal ruling that Adidas violated a code of conduct designed to prevent forced labor, demand health and safety and regulate wages and working hours would pressure the company to compensate its workers fairly and clean up its business ethics in the future.
By severing a contract, the university would lose all bargaining power, and Adidas could then choose freely whether to pay its workers or not. As a business partner, the UW has the ability to pressure the company to clean up its labor policies – it can demand economic justice for thousands of Indonesian factory workers.
Reginald Young (email@example.com) is a senior majoring in legal studies and Scandinavian studies. Charles Godfrey (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a junior majoring in math and physics. Together, they are your Opinion page editors.