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Support Fair Labor Standards

A proposal to take several measures to protect the rights of workers involved in the production of MIT-licensed apparel could soon come before MIT’s Academic Council. The proposal, authored primarily by several MIT students, calls for MIT to join the Fair Labor Association (FLA) and the Worker’s Rights Consortium (WRC), as well as to establish its own code of conduct of licensees. The Tech urges the Academic Council to support this proposal.

The fair labor standards this proposal could help establish should be applied to all factories which produce MIT-licensed apparel and goods. MIT should require all licensees to sign such a labor code to ensure that MIT sweatshirts are made in factories as safe as those where brass rats are produced; workers in China and Honduras should be as safe as workers in the U.S.

Certainly, MIT does not sell nearly as much licensed apparel as NCAA Division I sports powerhouses like Duke or Notre Dame, whose logos can be found on t-shirts and hats nationwide. However, having a smaller market doesn’t absolve MIT of its responsibility to make sure its products are produced in factories which treat workers fairly. Laborers in other countries should not be forced to work under unsafe conditions for pennies a day just so we can have sweatshirts that say MIT. Students who support the proposal have cited several possible examples of labor abuses in such factories [“Labor Rights and MIT Apparel,” Feb. 19]; even the potential for unfair labor practices should be motivation enough for MIT to look closer at companies tied to its name.

Furthermore, MIT can take this opportunity to set a good example for its peer institutions, who collectively do have a large market in apparel. The proposal at hand calls for MIT to join the FLA, with which Harvard University, the California Institute of Technology, and Yale University are already affiliated. GEAR for Sports and Jostens, Inc., both licensed with MIT, are members of the FLA.

In addition, the proposal recommends that MIT join the WRC. Harvard, Caltech, and Yale are not affiliated with the WRC, but other schools are, including Brown University and Columbia University. The FLA and the WRC inspect factories to find violations and determine how to remedy unacceptable situations. Joining these two organizations would help establish accountability for MIT’s licensees.

Beyond that, the authors propose that MIT establish its own code of conduct, its own set of minimum standards for employees of its licensees. These include standards for a living wage, voluntary overtime, health, safety, and nondiscrimination. Establishing such a code would be a clear statement of MIT’s stance that it does not condone the substandard labor conditions prevalent in many nations and even in the U.S., and that it will not continue to sponsor such activities.

Unfortunately, this proposal cannot fix everything. It has no bearing on apparel produced by MIT clubs, for example, which represents a not insignificant portion of the MIT-related clothing on campus. Students should not take something as simple as printing t-shirts for granted; find out where those t-shirts were made, by whom, and under what conditions.

The Tech commends the effort led by Sanjay Basu ’02 and Julia R. de Kadt ’02, who with the help of Kirk D. Kolenbrander brought this proposal to President Vest. Students who feel MIT students cannot be heard by the administration should see this as a sign of encouragement that students can enact positive change, both on-campus and off. The fact that in this case students are taking action before MIT, rather than simply responding to a decision already made, shows that students must be willing advocates if change is to be enacted.

In addition, the administration deserves some credit for allowing Kolenbrander to serve as a direct link between students and President Vest. In this case, Kolenbrander has been supportive of student concerns and has worked with them to draft reasonable proposals supported by both sides. While some students are unhappy with the compromise reached on commencement speaker James D. Wolfensohn of the World Bank, at the very least Kolenbrander worked with students upset by the decision to reach a compromise.

Now the proposal needs the Academic Council’s approval. The Tech urges the council to realize MIT’s responsibility for where it places its own name, as well as its role, as a leading university, to set a positive example for peer institutions. The best way for MIT to live up to these responsibilities is for the Academic Council to accept and implement this proposal.