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Academic Council To Review Labor Code

By Brian Loux


The MIT student group United Trauma Relief has petitioned Kirk D. Kolenbrander, special assistant to the president and chancellor, requesting standards for workers who produce MIT-licensed apparel.

Kolenbrander has been in consistent contact with the group and has voiced his approval for previous drafts of the measure. He said he would send the proposal to MIT President Charles M. Vest with his own personal recommendations “by the end of the week.”

The proposal requests that MIT join the Fair Labor Association, the Worker’s Rights Consortium, and establish its own code of conduct for licensees.

“This is exciting for us because the WRC is a step most others have not taken,” said Sanjay Basu ’02, one of the principal authors of the proposal. “Earlier, [administrators] were quite explicit that they were not expecting any more than the FLA membership. This move is really different than our peer institutions.” Harvard, Stanford, and the California Institute of Technology do not belong to the WRC.

For the petition to officially reach the Academic Council, MIT’s highest decision-making body other than the MIT Corporation, it must first be accepted Kolenbrander and then Vest. Each administrator has the chance to make comments on the proposal, which will also be presented to the Academic Council before they make their decision.

Project has long history

UTR’s project began approximately a year ago after Assistant Professor of Urban Studies and Planning Dara O’Rourke, a noted expert and researcher on factory conditions abroad, released his findings on the practices of factories that produce MIT apparel. “Most of the conditions he reported were just atrocious,” Basu said. “We began to look at what we were doing to solve the problem and we noticed that MIT did not have any policy.”

In the spring of 2001, UTR member Julia R. de Kadt ’02 also undertook a research project looking at the policies for MIT and companies licensed to manufacture MIT apparel, such as Jansport, Champion USA, and Barnes & Noble, which manages store operations for The Coop. She found that very few companies belonged to labor rights associations or actively enforced the company standards on labor.

Working with O’Rourke and Kolenbrander, the organization began to discuss policies that MIT could employ. “Kolenbrander was supportive but pretty much just wanted to join [FLA],” instead of the WRC as well, Basu said. According to UTR members, Kolenbrander later warmed up to the proposals, even attending a conference for college administrators discussing how to address and define human rights, allowing for more compromise.

Over this past weekend, UTR revised the proposal to include a comparison of their proposed code of conduct to that of the University of Iowa’s at the request of Kolenbrander. “The University of Iowa was a pioneer institution [for this cause] ... and is a benchmark for us to use,” Kolenbrander said. “Of course our institutions are different and so our codes will be as well, but it is nice to have the comparison.”

The University of Iowa’s code calls for a living wage and voluntary overtime for all workers, while MIT’s proposal does not. MIT’s proposal however does define Iowa’s somewhat vague terms on discrimination and health standards, using definitions from the Occupational Health and Safety Administration and the International Labor Organization.

“The plan will primarily do two things,” Basu said. “It will immediately allow inspection into factories which will allow us to have information about the factories which is very difficult to obtain. It also provides a concrete mechanism with which to resolve health and safety issues. Those were the two main things we were looking for.”

“I don’t expect it will immediately bring about change,” Kolenbrander said, “but it will greatly change what we expect from vendors and also ourselves. The code would help guide institutional decisions.”

WRC inclusion seen as victory

UTR was pleased to see Kolenbrander’s support for including the WRC in the proposal. The WRC and FLA are two organizations whose purpose is to inspect factories and remedy any infractions that they observe on site. Critics have often charged the FLA for being an industry front and that more organizations are apt to join the association because the rules are more lax.

A total of 174 universities are part of the FLA, while only 94 are part of the WRC, most of them also belonging to the FLA. “In the past, factory inspections could be done by company employees, so of course they found no violations,” Basu said. “Only last week did the association change to unannounced inspections done by an external agent.”

In her announcement of the university’s new policy, University of Iowa President Mary Sue Coleman said that she was “disappointed with the FLA’s slow pace of implementing its code of conduct” and had “concerns about its structure.”

The WRC has its own code of conduct for which it searches, but it also permits organizations to add upon their own if they see fit, which UTR opted to do. The code of conduct for both the FLA and the WRC include fair wages and working hours, adequate health and safety standards, nondiscriminatory practices, and the freedom to collectively bargain.

“The WRC will do more but has less power, while the FLA has more access and resources but we don’t expect the quality to be as high,” Basu said, explaining why the organization pushed for inclusion in both groups.

Parties hail cooperation

Both parties were satisfied with the way the discussions unfolded and with the final draft.

“I’ve been quite impressed with the ability we were able to work with the administration on this,” Basu said. “People at other schools have taken over buildings to talk about this issue, but we only had to have meetings. It is testament to the fact that we can work this over in a rational and civilized way.”

“There is a very positive story here and that is the work of the students; great leadership was shown on their part,” Kolenbrander said. “I think many universities are showing this issue respect, but at the heart of the issue at MIT is one about apparel. At a university like Ohio State, it would be an issue that focuses on a big source of income.”

The Academic Council, comprising all of MIT’s deans, vice presidents, Chancellor Philip M. Clay PhD ’75, Provost Robert A. Brown and Vest, usually does not know the agenda of its weekly Tuesday meeting more than a few days in advance, said Dean for Student Life Larry G. Benedict.

“We talk on a wide variety of issues each time, including issues like [labor rights],” Benedict said.

Basu said he was optimistic that proposal would be approved. “Kolenbrander has always been honest with us and has said very explicitly that the [council] may accept this kind of measure,” Basu said. “They’ve been so open that we expect they would bring any reservations to our attention and discuss them.”