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Labor Rights and MIT Apparel

Guest Column
Julia de Kadt and Sanjay Basu

Abuse of laborers in the production of collegiate apparel has long been a contentious issue on college campuses across the United States. Until recently, however, the issue was given little attention here at MIT. We are pleased that MIT no longer wants to be complicit to labor abuse. The MIT administration is currently deciding on the best course of action to take to ensure that MIT-licensed clothing, which is largely produced abroad, is made in a way that is consistent with the protection of even the most basic labor rights, ranging from the accessibility of fire escapes to simple needle protection guards on sewing machines.

We support the administration’s decision to look at this issue seriously. Certainly it is disturbing to realize that clothes bearing the MIT logo might have been made by abused workers who were forced to dip their hands in carcinogenic chemicals without gloves, or by workers locked into factories with no means of escape in a fire.

Both of these scenarios, as well as worse labor abuses, have been documented in factories in cities where MIT clothing is made, and a more thorough investigation of MIT’s factory locations has revealed that further abuses are likely taking place in MIT-licensed facilities. Images of worker abuse are not scenes that MIT can allow itself to be tied to.

We believe that in order to address this issue adequately, the administration needs to take action on three fronts:

MIT needs to follow the path taken by several other large universities in drawing up a code of conduct describing acceptable labor practices, and requiring all licensees to sign the code. We believe that it is essential that this code enforce fundamental labor standards that we would consider acceptable as an MIT community, particularly because MIT profits from the sale of clothing made in its apparel factories. We believe that clauses guaranteeing the protection of women’s rights and prohibiting discrimination based on race, gender, or pregnancy are crucial to any accepted code of conduct.

Additionally, we feel strongly that licensees should be required to pay a wage to workers that enables those workers’ families to meet their nutritional, shelter and everyday living needs in their respective countries. The code should also contain the standard clauses prohibiting abuse of child labor, protecting worker health and safety, and requiring adherence to all labor laws in the country of production. Currently, no such code is enforced in factories producing MIT clothing.

In order to prevent abuse of workers, MIT also needs to join the Workers Rights Consortium. This non-profit organization, with over 90 affiliated universities, is run by college administrations, students, and labor experts. The organization works together with non-governmental organizations to monitor the conditions in factories in which collegiate apparel is made. To join, MIT would first need to adopt the aforementioned code of conduct regarding labor practices and require all licensees to adhere to the code.

Then, information regarding all licensees would be given to the WRC and payment of an annual fee of $1,000 would be required to fund inspections of MIT-licensed factories. Inspections are generally conducted on a random basis by trained WRC inspectors, or are performed when complaints about a particular factory are received. Inspections are also performed without prior notification to the factory owners. A typical factory inspection would involve worker interviews that probe safety conditions and pay, a visual inspection of the factory to identify health and safety violations, and an examination of factory records to identify cases of child labor abuse or underpayment.

While the WRC appears to be a positive framework for the protection of workers in factories producing MIT clothing, some administrators seem to favor the Fair Labor Association (FLA, an alternative to the WRC). We feel that membership into the Fair Labor Association, while not in itself a bad thing, will not be sufficient to demonstrate MIT’s commitment to the protection of labor rights. Although this organization is similar to the WRC in that it attempts to protect workers engaged in the production of collegiate apparel, the FLA engages in several questionable practices by allowing companies to choose which of their factories will be inspected, and by allowing inspections to occur at a time specified by the factory managers. Additionally, FLA use of untrained auditors who miss blatant violations has been well documented.

While we will not oppose a decision by MIT to join this organization, in that it signals some progress on the issue, we believe that such membership would be insufficient. The FLA has serious shortcomings, and MIT would be caught up in addressing these organizational problems if it joined the FLA. As this would be a long-term process, we believe that immediate membership of the WRC continues to be essential.

Finally, it is clear, from the concerns of students, staff and professors on this campus, that MIT needs to devote its considerable intellectual capital to the issue of labor rights and human security in factories. Over sixty MIT students and faculty members concerned about this issue have signed a petition urging MIT to adopt all of the measures addressed in this editorial.

In addition, however, long-term support for research into this extremely complex but crucial issue may well be among the most important contributions that MIT can make in improving dangerous conditions at factories. Support for both students and faculty who wish to pursue research and direct action in the field of labor rights is clearly critical to the building of our understanding of the problems involved in this issue and to the creation of new, better solutions.

Julia de Kadt and Sanjay Basu are both members of the Class of 2002. They are also both members of the MIT student group United Trauma Relief.