Workers of the World,
Bama Athreya C’88 fights for workers’ rights
|Class of ’88 | When Bama Athreya C’88 shops—for sneakers, flowers, even a chocolate bar—brand and price aren’t her only considerations. Knowing whether products are Fair Trade and from sources that meet international labor standards matters greatly to Athreya, a longtime Washington-based human-rights advocate.
“I care about labels—I am definitely a much more intentional consumer now,” says Athreya, who recently became president of GlobalWorks Foundation, the nonprofit arm of a DC lobbying firm.
Getting the public—and the US business community—to similarly care about workers’ rights has been the focus of her more than 15 years in the movement. Her career has included stints in Indonesia and Cambodia, and regular travel to Asia, Central America, and other parts of the developing world.
In her former role as executive director of the International Labor Rights Forum, Athreya amassed an impressive list of labor-rights wins.
She worked as part of a coalition to convince Nike to improve factory conditions for their high-end athletic gear and Nestlé to address the use of child labor in the production of cocoa beans; helmed a major effort to end forced child labor in cotton production in Uzbekistan; implemented an Ethical Garments Project to develop humane guidelines for apparel production; helped train Chinese judges, lawyers, and others on labor regulations; and teamed up with groups in Central America on an assessment of national labor standards.
“Bama is an incredibly smart, talented, and dedicated advocate for workers,” says Eric Dirnbach, the green- jobs researcher at Laborers International Union of North America who has worked with Athreya on labor issues for more than five years. “She brings a wealth of knowledge to the table about international labor conditions, and is one of the foremost experts in the country on the international labor situation.”
Her high profile earned her the opportunity to join forces with GlobalWorks parent Fontheim International, for which she also serves as a vice president of its lobbying side, as well as an invitation to find out about the other side of the boardroom table as a corporate director.
Fittingly, the board position is with the socially conscious Ben and Jerry’s. Tapped for her labor-rights expertise, Athreya is trying to master the ice-cream business, while enjoying a great perk: all the Chubby Hubby (her favorite flavor) and other Ben and Jerry’s products she wants.
To all of her work, Athreya brings a somewhat unique academic perspective. Unlike many of her lawyer or economist peers, she earned her bachelor’s degree in comparative literature at Penn and holds a PhD in cultural anthropology from the University of Michigan.
“What anthropology does is ground you in getting that grassroots perspective—getting people’s stories and understanding people’s stories,” she explains. “Anthropology offers a way of getting my arms around the range of lives and cultures, and the social and economic conditions in the world, and trying to understand that from the perspective of individual people.”
Athreya, who is married and has two elementary school-age children, put these individual-people skills to an early test when she moved to Indonesia in the mid-’90s to work as an economic and consular officer for the US State Department.
There she sought out ordinary people who weren’t on the diplomatic cocktail-party circuit, including a young activist who had worked in a factory since she was 10 and made the equivalent of $1 a day. The encounter prompted Athreya to meet other workers in similar situations and document their stories. The research would form the foundation of her dissertation and lay the groundwork for her subsequent career.
“I was not interested in the academic project for the sake of an academic career,” she says. “These workers told me they wanted me to write their stories and tell people what their lives are like: ‘People in the US buy the stuff we make; they ought to know [how]these products are made and under what conditions.’”
Her Indonesian fieldwork continued a consciousness-raising that began in childhood. The eldest daughter of two physicians, Atheyra saw the flip side of her comfortable childhood in an affluent suburb in southern New Jersey during visits to her parents’ homeland in India.
“I was aware of this extreme poverty in other parts of the world—I had seen it very close,” she says. “In every city in India, I saw kids much younger than me who were forced to beg in the streets.”
This people-focused philosophy has informed her subsequent work: as a country director for the American Center for International Labor Solidarity, AFL-CIO, in Phnom Penh, just as Cambodia was emerging from years of civil war, and during her long stint with the ILRF, which ended late last year.
Under her leadership, ILRF became known as an organization that did its homework and fully researched industries and labor conditions before offering guidance. The group also has developed innovative tools to build public awareness of its issues, including Free2Work, a website and app that allows shoppers to look up manufacturers’ records on labor rights.
“We were uniquely valuable and uniquely well-respected in the movement [because] we didn’t just make it up as we went along,” she says. “When we did testify before Congress or provide information to a corporation, they knew they could rely on us to develop ground-based research and come up with answers that would work in those countries.”
The overriding principle of this work by Athreya and her associates is to help workers empower themselves.
“In the US, we have to be careful about dictating the direction of the way things should go,” says Dirnbach, who last year joined the board of the ILRF. “Bama is always aware of being accountable to our overseas allies, to what direction they want to go, and how we can be helpful.”
In her new roles at Fontheim and its nonprofit arm, Athreya has an opportunity to engage in a bigger conversation about economic justice. Labor rights is part of this anti-poverty push, but it also extends to how global trade policies can be shaped to improve access to jobs and other opportunities.
“It’s a much broader lens,” she says. “We have the real ability to make change based on our unique access to US policymakers and multilateral institutions like the World Bank.”
Through it all, Athreya remains optimistic, even as she tries not to overreach with her goals. “I do what I can that meshes with my values,” she says, but she doesn’t claim to foresee the ultimate effect her work will have. “Humility is important, and I’m always maintaining the focus on the positive—and what could be possible.”
| ©2011 The Pennsylvania
Last modified 8/26/11