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Sweating It Out Over Sweatshops
   
APART from, perhaps, affirmative action, no political issue sparked more nationwide campus activism last academic year than the use of foreign sweatshop-labor to make university-licensed apparel. Largely because of student protests last winter, about 60 colleges and universities–including every Ivy League school–have joined the Fair Labor Association (FLA), a White House-backed effort to monitor wages and working conditions at foreign factories that manufacture American garments. Although Penn’s campus was relatively quiet on the issue, four student groups –the Society for International Development, the Progressive Activist Network, the Wharton Management Club and Perspectives in Humanities –sponsored the April roundtable. Titled "Profits, Development, Activism, and Your Clothes," the panel featured a student activist from Princeton, three Penn faculty and a cultural anthropologist from the New School for Social Research.
   
The New School’s Dina Siddiqi began by asking why the sweatshop issue per se was so important to student activists. Why not focus on, say, agricultural workers? she asked. She warned that a monitoring scheme by American universities "might actually play into neo-colonial strategies of domination," and added that activists "have to make sure [they] don’t slide into any self-righteousness" about their moral purity.
   
Rongione then outlined priorities for establishing worker rights–first, sweatshop managers should "do no harm" to workers, then they should "prevent harm" to them, and finally, they should strive to actively "do good." He encouraged sweatshop activists to be realistic. "I’ll be satisfied if we can get [licensees] to accept the duty to do no harm and prevent harm," he said.
   
Daniel Raff, associate professor of management and associate professor of history, noted that on-site managers at the bottom of the corporate ladder usually have little control over conditions. It is the top brass–the executives who prioritize profit over human rights–who should be pressured. "In effect, what you need to do is force the people who make the decisions at the top" to be aware of working conditions, he said.
   
A national anti-sweatshop activist–Princeton sophomore Paul Black–denied media allegations that the student sweatshop movement is controlled by labor unions. He argued that the movement represented a renaissance of student activism, one featuring protests "that are less violent and more policy-oriented" than those in the 1960s.
   
Louis Berneman, managing director of the Center for Technology Transfer and the Penn administration’s representative on the panel, defended the FLA, which has been criticized by students and unions for being too corporate. (Many apparel licensees sit on its board.) He noted that the FLA prohibits basic abuses, such as the use of forced labor and child labor, as well as the physical abuse of workers.
   
"We will have the right and ability to inspect and monitor" suspicious factories, he said. "Where we are informed that violations occur, we will not renew licenses."
   
He added that Penn, unlike the FLA, supports disclosing the location of sub-standard factories. "We believe that [an important] step in prohibiting sweatshops is the disclosure of the location of sweatshop activity."
   
Loftier goals, such as ensuring a "living wage" for workers, are too complex for the nascent FLA to address, he asserted. "These issues are as old as society," he said. "We are not going to solve them in a matter of days."
   
In May, however, the University of Arizona, responding to a 10-day sit in, threatened to drop out of the FLA by 2000 if it does not ensure a "living wage" for laborers. Later that month, Harvard, Notre Dame and the University of California system formed a second, stricter university-apparel coalition, which will hire a major accounting firm to monitor conditions.

Michael Brus C’99

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Copyright 1999 The Pennsylvania Gazette Last modified6/28/99