An information session Tuesday night found both sweatshop activists and administrators at UW-Madison seeking more information about where UW licensed apparel comes from and questioning what UW should do to protect workers’ rights.
The forum, sponsored by various groups both on campus and off, allowed for members of UW administration, sweatshop experts, members of the Workers Rights Consortium and the Fair Labor Activists to define the sweatshop issue, give background information and open the floor for questions.
Earlier in the day, students from the Madison Anti-Sweatshop Coalition and the Student Labor Action Coalition, who fear UW Chancellor John Wiley may be backing out of previous agreements, personally criticized Wiley for not attending the forum.
“Your absence shows a lack of commitment and openness in regards to the issues being explored,” the letter said. “The decision whether or not to rejoin the Fair Labor Association represents a crucial crossroads in the relationship between students, the administration and the process by which sweatshop decisions will be made.”
Last year, UW joined the WRC, an independent sweatshop monitoring firm, after students pressured then-Chancellor David Ward to back out of the FLA, which they deemed corrupt and biased.
The chancellor’s office has denied they are backing out of the WRC, but their future regarding rejoining the FLA is unsure.
“We’ve made no decision regarding the FLA,” said Lamar Billups, the chancellor’s special associate for community relations. “We remain an active part and will remain an active part of the WRC.”
Wiley said his inability to attend the forum was not an intentional slight.
“I have supported [the] panel discussion financially and otherwise because I would like to have the Labor Licensing Policy Committee, myself and the community at large to have the best information available about how this campus can best pursue the monitoring of workplace standards,” Wiley said. “I have no preconceived notions about how this discussion will go, nor about any decision that might be made regarding rejoining the FLA or severing an association with the WRC.”
Billups said UW was fully devoted to finding the best possible solution for all involved.
“This issue is one of the highest among priorities among the UW administration,” he said. “We need the best information on how we can proceed in monitoring sweatshops and manufacturers bearing the UW logo.”
Daniel Long, a member of the Labor Licensing Policies Committee, gave a brief history and background of the issues concerning the university and its involvement, and said many of the goals UW has accomplished thus far have “set a nationwide precedent.”
Jane Collins, professor of rural sociology and women’s studies, who has been conducting research on these issues since 1999, said her studies have shown companies will take initiative on sweatshop labor to protect the bottom line. “Consumer perceptions of their labor practices influences their popularity,” Collins said. “They’re in a good position, I would argue, to invest in their workers.”
Representatives of both the WRC and the FLA also spoke of their monitoring organizations, and fielded questions from the audience.
The WRC, according to executive director Scott Nova, is dedicated to working with the laborers in sweatshops and to providing unbiased investigations into the practices of corporations such as Nike, Reebok and Adidas, which provide the majority of university apparel.
According to Nova, 80 schools nationwide are members of the WRC.
The representative from FLA was unable to make the forum, but John Rosenblum, a lawyer associated with the International Labor Rights Foundation, defended the monitoring company.
According to Rosenblum, the FLA is a sufficient monitoring organization because it promotes internal monitoring, independent external monitoring and an adequate complaints process.
Currently 167 schools are involved with the FLA.