Markkula Center of Applied Ethics

Global Labor Rights and the End of the Multifiber Arrangement

By Miriam Schulman

When a student goes into the Santa Clara University bookstore and purchases a red sweatshirt with the fighting bronco logo, he or she can rest assured that the clothing was produced by a company that subscribes to a workplace code of conduct developed by the Fair Labor Association, an organization that combines the efforts of industry, non-governmental organizations, colleges, and universities to promote adherence to international labor standards.

Santa Clara is just one of hundreds of institutions of higher education that have tried to leverage their purchasing power to improve working conditions for laborers in the textile industry. SCU also belongs to the Worker's Rights Consortium along with such purchasing heavyweights as Ohio State University and the members of the University of California system. Together these organizations have had a real impact on the labor practices of such corporate giants as Nike.

Gains in the protection of workers may now be threatened with the upcoming phase out of the Multifiber Arrangement, a trade agreement originally intended to protect the US, Canadian and European textile industries. Clean Clothes, another group concerned with the treatment of workers in the global clothing trade, has a good summary of why the arrangement's demise may have an adverse impact on overall global labor standards, but the gist is this: The end of the MFA may encourage more companies to move to countries where worker rights are not respected. In particular, China does not allow the formation of unions, which is a right included in the Fair Labor Association's code of conduct. University of Notre Dame is so concerned about this issue that they have informed their licensees that Notre Dame will not allow any products with the university's marks to be manufactured in countries, such as China, whose laws prohibit compliance with fundamental provisions of university codes of conduct.

The Ethics Center sponsored a forum January 19, 2005, to discuss SCU's response, featuring James Briggs, special assistant to the president, William Sundstrom, associate professor of economics, and Stephanie Camoroda, a senior and member of the Santa Clara Community Action Program's Labor Action Committee.

Sundstrom laid out the basic choice for SCU, and by extension, other universities: Assuming institutions of higher learning wish to continue to promote higher labor standards, is the best tactic Notre Dame's approach or one of engagement with China? The Worker Rights Consortium outlines three others:

"Allow licensees to use current suppliers in countries where code compliance is prohibited by law, but prohibit any further shift of production to these countries until the labor rights situation improves.

Allow licensees unlimited sourcing from countries where code compliance is prohibited by law, but require these licensees to make a positive contribution through their sourcing, rather than simply taking advantage of the situation."

Camoroda also proposed some concrete steps the University might take including:

  • Pressure licensees to maintain relationships with factories with a good record of improving working conditions.
  • Work to limit the shift of University manufacturing to countries that forbid freedom of association.

One of the undergraduates who attended the forum asked how realistic it was to expect that a school of Santa Clara's size could really influence the behavior of multinational corporations. Center Executive Director Kirk O. Hanson pointed out that university students really helped put the issue of sweatshop labor on the table. He suggested that universities could again play the role of "conscience" by fostering thoughtful debate on the right of association.

Miriam Schulman is the communications director of the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics.

Wednesday, January 25.