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Release: Feb. 17, 2000

UI plans forum to address sweatshop labor

IOWA CITY, Iowa -- The University of Iowa will use a Feb. 24 public forum to hear student and other groups' views on sweatshop labor and to hear people's comments about two workers' organizations that function to monitor and protect the rights of factory apparel workers.

Ann Rhodes, vice president of university relations, says her attendance at the forum hosted by the new UI Center for Human Rights (UICHR), will give her a chance to hear others' views on the topic. The forum will be from 2 to 4 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 24 in the Lounge of the International Center.

Recently, persons critical of the Fair Labor Association (FLA) and its monitoring efforts have called for the UI to abandon its affiliation with the FLA, a nonprofit organization aimed at protecting the rights of apparel and footwear workers worldwide. Those persons support the UI joining the Workers Rights Consortium (WRC), developed by the United Students Against Sweatshops. The WRC has similar goals to the FLA, including guidelines to inspect factories that produce collegiate licensed apparel in guarding against sweatshop labor.

While the two organizations have the same goal, including improving working conditions, their methods differ. The FLA proposes a system of long-term, comprehensive monitoring, with follow up remediation and input from third parties. The FLA, like the WRC, shuns forced labor, calls for a standard 48-hour workweek, and for a minimum wage equal to that required by local law or the prevailing industry wage.

The FLA, created in 1998 to address labor standards, was the first organization to prescribe an industry-wide code of conduct and monitoring system. The FLA grew out of the Apparel Industry Partnership and lists among its members 131 colleges and universities, including four from the Big Ten, various non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and corporations. The WRC is "designed to establish a system of licensee verification that maximizes the respect of human rights and accountability to their constituents," according to its principle mission statement.

Burns Weston, professor emeritus, UI College of Law, and director of the UI Center for Human Rights, says the FLA is a "well-intentioned" initiative that "has been something of a 'paper-tiger' since it was formed because of its difficulties in enforcing standards to guide the inspection of apparel manufacturers. Weston says the forum is a chance to have an open dialogue of competing views.

He says the UICHR has not itself adopted a formal position on whether the UI should change its affiliation, but says a number of the UICHR's executive council members favor such a move. Weston stressed that the Center welcomes this opportunity to play a role in helping enlighten the UI community's awareness of such complex human rights issues in such a public way.

Monitoring companies' compliance with guidelines to ensure that workers' rights are not infringed is an "important and complex issue," says Justine Nolan, business and human rights coordinator, Lawyers Committee for Human Rights, a New York-based organization.

"With the appointment of an executive director, Sam Brown, the FLA is now moving quickly to begin accrediting monitors to inspect factories and put its code into practice in the factories of companies and university licensees affiliated with the FLA," Nolan says.

Nolan acknowledges criticism of the FLA and says she feels "the best way to combat critics is to put its code and monitoring program to the test in the field."

She says the FLA has recently agreed upon monitoring for guidelines and selected an executive director. It also has the backing of 22 colleges and universities that are taking part in a $200,000 pilot project to increase the number of NGOs and labor unions to improve FLA monitoring processes, Nolan says.

Individuals with disabilities are encouraged to attend all University of Iowa-sponsored events. If you are a person with a disability who requires an accommodation in order to participate in this program, please contact the Office of Communications and Outreach at 335-0292.