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Statement, October 2001

SASL Steering Committee

Lourdes Beneria, Cornell University
James K. Galbraith, U. of Texas-Austin
Teresa Ghilarducci, Notre Dame University
Soohaeng Kim, Seoul National University
Sule Ozler, U. of California-Los Angeles


Robert Pollin, Chair, U. of Massachusetts-Amherst
Dani Rodrik, Harvard University
Juliet Schor, Boston College
Ajit Singh, University of Cambridge

A movement by college and university students to oppose sweatshop labor in the production of college logo apparel began in the United States in the mid-1990s. The movement has been highly successful in raising the awareness of students and the broader population about harsh conditions experienced by garment workers throughout the world, including the United States, but most especially less developed countries. The students have read accounts by reputable sources about sweatshops—for example, a 10/2/00 Business Week story titled "A Life of Fines and Beatings," which describes conditions in Chinese factories that make products for Wal-Mart, among other Western companies. The overarching aim of the anti-sweatshop movement is simple: to make a contribution toward eliminating ‘lives of fines and beatings’ for workers throughout the world, in the same way that previous generations of activists fought to eliminate slave labor, child labor, and the 12-hour workday. The anti-sweatshop movement wants workers worldwide be able to work under decent conditions, exercise basic human rights, and earn at least decent minimum wages.

In response to this student movement, many colleges and universities have adopted "codes of conduct" aimed at improving wages and working conditions for workers producing apparel that carries the logo of their own institutions. We, the undersigned, are broadly supportive of these efforts, even though we acknowledge that we do not have detailed information on the codes established at every institution.

During the past academic year, a group calling itself the "Academic Consortium on International Trade" (ACIT) circulated a letter to Presidents of Colleges and Universities, raising major concerns about these anti-sweatshop activities. As of June 2001, the letter has been signed by 352 economists and other academics, many of them distinguished practitioners in their fields of specialization. This letter is also posted on the ACIT website,

The letter raises four basic concerns about the direction of the anti-sweatshop campaigns on college and university campuses:

    1. Institutions are establishing codes of conduct without adequate consultation of experts knowledgeable in the relevant fields.
    2. The two main organizations engaged in monitoring codes of conduct throughout the world—the Workers Rights Consortium (WRC) and the Fair Labor Association (FLA) may prove ineffective. The ACIT letter proposes that other groups also be considered as monitors, such as Social Accounting International (SAI; formerly known as Council on Economic Priorities Accreditation Agency).
    3. Inadequate attention has been paid to whether the views of the anti-sweatshop movement are representative of the views of governments, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and workers in the developing countries that are directly involved in the apparel industry.
    4. Anti-sweatshop activists and the main monitoring organizations do not understand how establishing codes of conduct may actually harm the very low-wage workers in developing countries they are trying to help. In particular, the ACIT letter suggests that forcing businesses in less developed countries to pay higher wages and improve working conditions could reduce the overall availability of jobs in these countries.

We believe that these concerns raised by ACIT are legitimate. At the same time, we believe that the anti-sweatshop movement—and the colleges and universities that have embraced this movement through establishing codes of conduct in college logo apparel production—are taking constructive steps toward improving living and working conditions for millions of poor people throughout the world.

We expand on this conclusion below through addressing the main concerns raised in the ACIT letter.

Are colleges and universities making decisions about codes of conduct without adequate consultation?

Colleges and universities that have adopted codes of conduct have generally done so only after careful consultation with appropriate faculty and/or outside experts. We would be surprised if any institution of higher education were to act otherwise. But the ACIT letter also raises a broader issue: do college and university decision-makers have an adequate foundation of research on which to understand all the issues raised by the anti-sweatshop movement? Of course, scholars have been writing for generations about the most effective ways of alleviating poverty and enhancing conditions in workplaces. At the same time, the anti-sweatshop movement has prompted a new body of research and discussion that is deepening our understanding of the specific issues at hand. Universities have commissioned much of this new research. Links to many of these resources can be found at the SASL website.  No doubt more such work would be beneficial. For now, the anti-sweatshop movement deserves credit for pushing researchers to focus on these issues. With time, these efforts will produce both greater understanding and increasingly effective codes of conduct.

Worldwide Consultation and Monitoring

Establishing and monitoring acceptable codes of conduct for companies operating plants throughout the world are clearly difficult tasks. Achieving adequate levels of compliance will be a long, slow process requiring experimentation, flexibility and learning. Toward that end, ACIT’s concern over the quality of monitoring is constructive. But the ACIT letter does not make clear that the three monitoring agencies that it refers to—the Workers Rights Consortium (WRC), Fair Labor Association (FLA), and Social Accountability International (SAI)—offer perspectives that are distinct and complementary. The WRC governing and advisory boards are comprised of academics, university administrators, labor rights activists and NGOs from developing countries. In other words, the WRC has brought local stakeholders into the center of the monitoring process. This is exactly what the ACIT letter itself recommends. Moreover, the WRC is committed to maintaining transparent procedures for monitoring firms and disclosing the results of their inspections. Unlike the WRC, the Fair Labor Association includes representatives of business prominently on its board, in addition to having NGO and university representatives. The widespread concern voiced by activists over the governance of the FLA is that it gives too much power to businesses to effectively monitor their own behavior. We do not evaluate here the merits of this criticism. But even allowing that there is truth to it, it is still clear that the FLA is on the right track by including business representatives in their formal discussions, since no viable standards will emerge by excluding them. Social Accountability International, as the ACIT letter correctly points out, is more experienced than either the WRC or FLA in implementing monitoring and certification procedures for international businesses. However most of their previous work has been in the area of product quality control rather than social monitoring. In short, the three organizations bring different strengths to the task of establishing and monitoring effective labor standards worldwide. Ongoing cooperation and competition between these groups should also raise the general performance standard for all three.

Wages, Labor Costs, and Employment Opportunities in the Global Garment Industry

The ACIT letter says that multinational corporations "commonly pay their workers more on average in comparison to the prevailing market wage for similar workers employed elsewhere in the economy." While this is true, it does not speak to the situation in which most garments are produced throughout the world—which is by firms subcontracted by multinational corporations, not the MNCs themselves. In implicitly acknowledging this point, ACIT does also state that in the case of subcontracting, workers are "generally paid no less than the prevailing market wage." This is also true, almost by definition. But the prevailing market wage is frequently extremely low for garment workers in less developed countries. In addition, the recent university-sponsored studies as well as an October 2000 report by the International Labor Organization consistently find that serious workplace abuses and violations of workers’ rights are occurring in the garment industry throughout the world. Considering simply the "prevailing market wage" in various countries thus tells us little about the working and living conditions of the workers who receive these wages.

The ACIT letter also raises a broader concern about the effort to raise wages and workplace standards for sweatshop workers: that improved labor standards could come at the cost of higher unemployment and a net loss of worker welfare. The aim of the anti-sweatshop movement is obviously not to induce negative unintended consequences such as higher overall unemployment in developing countries, nor to inhibit developing economies from competing successfully in global markets. The anti-sweatshop movement should take particular care that its efforts not produce fewer opportunities for people to get relatively high quality jobs in developing countries such as in some forms of garment production and other manufacturing and organized service sector activities. Even after allowing for the frequent low wages and poor working conditions in these jobs, they are still generally superior to "informal" employment in, for example, much of agriculture or urban street vending.

While caution is clearly needed in setting minimum decent standards for workplace conditions, workers rights, and wage levels, there is still no reason to assume that a country or region that sets reasonable standards must experience job losses. Additional policy measures will also be crucial for enhancing any region’s overall employment opportunities and competitiveness. Such initiatives include: measures to expand the overall number of relatively high quality jobs; relief from excessive foreign debt payments; raising worker job satisfaction and productivity and the quality of goods they produce; and improving the capacity to bring final products to retail markets. Moreover, as long as consumers in wealthier countries are willing to pay somewhat higher retail prices to ensure that garments are produced under non-sweatshop conditions—as recent polling data for the U.S. suggests is the case—the higher revenues within the industry could be used to improve workplace conditions and wages for production-level workers, without creating pressures for manufacturers to reduce their number of employees.

Establishing fair and effective labor market and workplace regulations is always a challenging task. But such regulations remain a cornerstone of any decent society. This has been clear from the historical struggles against slave labor onward. The need for such social protections has only increased in our contemporary era of globalization—contrary to the widespread premise that global economic integration should be synonymous with the dismantling of social protections.

The current anti-sweatshop movement on campuses can point to real achievements toward improving social protections worldwide: it has increased awareness about conditions facing sweatshop workers; and it has stimulated research and thinking as to the most effective ways U.S. academic institutions can contribute toward improving working conditions and living standards for these workers. Of course, both educational and monitoring efforts need to be strengthened, and anti-sweatshop activists need to maintain the open-minded approach they have demonstrated thus far in finding the most effective means of achieving the ends they desire. In this spirit, we broadly endorse the efforts of the anti-sweatshop movement. At the same time, we encourage anti-sweatshop activists to continue to deepen both their own understanding and their educational efforts—to examine conditions facing workers generally in developing countries, including those not employed in sweatshops; and to consider the most effective means of improving these general conditions.