In separate speeches Thursday night, leaders from the Fair Labor Association and the Worker Rights Consortium advocated contrasting approaches toward corporate involvement in the fight against sweatshops.
Northwestern is one of 147 member schools in the FLA, but members of Northwestern Students Against Sweatshops criticize the FLA’s ties to corporations and want the university to join the WRC instead.
Sam Brown Jr., the executive director of the FLA, defended his organization against student criticism that it is unduly influenced by the corporate giants it is supposed to police.
“It is only the companies that contract with the factories that can change the factories,” he told about 20 students, administrators and community members in Annenberg Hall G15. “You’ve got to be involved with the companies.”
But Daniel Long, a WRC governing board member, who spoke after Brown left, told students that letting the FLA monitor sweatshops was akin to “wolves guarding the henhouse.”
“Relying on multinational corporations to monitor the industry is not going to bring about long-term change,” said Long, who is a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin.
The FLA is an 18-month-old association of universities, corporations and non-governmental organizations that accredits groups that monitor the $300 billion worldwide apparel and footwear industry for sweatshop conditions.
The WRC is a 7-month-old organization focused on workers producing college or university-licensed apparel, which accounts for about 1 percent of the worldwide apparel market.
NSAS members asked NU administrators to change affiliation to the WRC on Oct. 4, but that request was denied.
Brown called the WRC “diversionary” and said students who are pushing the university to switch to the organization should stop bickering over small details and work toward bettering the conditions of sweatshop workers.
“They would be better served by helping people understand the conditions that these garments are made in and educating consumers to know what brands are using sweatshop labor,” he said.
But Neel Ahuja, a co-founder of NSAS, said his group was committed to raising consumer awareness, and that was why it supported the WRC.
“The WRC is all about full disclosure and public airing of the problems they find in factory working conditions,” said Ahuja, a Weinberg junior.
The university issued a press release Thursday reaffirming its commitment to the FLA and criticizing the WRC. Interim Vice President for Student Affairs William Banis and Director of University Services Brian Peters both listened to Brown’s speech but left before Long spoke.
Ahuja criticized administrators for leaving early after stating in the press release that they remain open to the WRC.
“I’m really upset they chose to leave,” Ahuja said. “I completely don’t buy into the administration’s claims that they’re remaining open on the issue.”
But Banis said he left the speech because it was late. “It’s been a long day and Mrs. Banis is eating another dinner alone,” he said.
NSAS members want the university to leave the FLA because of its close ties with corporations. Its board of directors is equally divided between corporations and non-governmental organizations, with one person representing the universities. The WRC does not have corporate connections.
“Our key principles weren’t set up by lawyers and industry representatives in some back room,” the WRC’s Long said. “We consulted with the very people we want to help, the workers.”
Brown defended the FLA’s ties to corporations and said accusations against his staff’s integrity were “frankly insulting.”
He said 20 percent of the FLA’s funding comes from its corporate members, compared with another 20 percent from universities and 60 percent from the government.
Getting companies to agree to a detailed code of conduct along with both outside and inside monitoring can turn giants such as Nike into “a powerful ally” in raising worldwide standards for workers, Brown said.
Once a few companies agree to operate according to the FLA’s standards, they have a commercial imperative to encourage the governments of other nations to mandate and enforce similar standards for all their factories, he said.
Brown compared his work with corporations to his deal-making with Russia when he was a negotiator for the United States at the Organization on Security and Cooperation in Europe.
“It wasn’t pure, it wasn’t pretty, but it was damn effective.”