June 13, 2005

ILR seminar considers whether foreign apparel workers have right to organize

ITHACA, N.Y. -- More U.S. consumers are demanding that their brand-name sports sneakers, jeans and other apparel are manufactured in countries where workers are afforded basic rights. 

Concerned manufacturers have adopted social responsibility programs and codes of conduct for their overseas suppliers that can include the right of workers to organize and bargain collectively for better wages and working conditions -- often called "freedom of association" (FOA). But how well are those codes working? 

To get some answers, Cornell University's School of Industrial and Labor Relations (ILR) spearheaded a gathering in New York City May 23-25 of representatives from Nike, Levi's, Polo Ralph Lauren, Adidas-Solomon, Nordstrom, Jones Apparel and Nautica. They were joined by labor experts from the ILR School and elsewhere and officials from key labor-monitoring organizations, including the AFL-CIO, Human Rights Watch, Maquila Solidarity Network and American Rights at Work. 

Also around the table were "stakeholder" monitoring organizations, including the Fair Labor Association, Workers Rights Consortium, Social Accountability International, Amsterdam-based Clean Clothes Campaign and monitoring groups Verité, Intertek and Cal Safety Compliance. Key officials from the U.S. Department of Labor, Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service and the World Bank's International Finance Corp. brought perspectives from governmental and international organizations.

"Monitoring for workers' organizing and bargaining rights presents challenges far different from monitoring for quantifiable things like child labor, safety standards and minimum wages," noted ILR Professor Sarosh Kuruvilla. "That's why we designed this first-ever seminar devoted solely to freedom of association under corporate codes." Kuruvilla said the seminar sought an agreed-on definition of FOA and to identify the knowledge and skills needed for effective monitoring. "We hope that effective monitoring can help make respect for workers' rights a normal business practice, not an occasional bright spot in an otherwise dismal landscape," he said.

"It's clear from the enthusiastic response of seminar participants that we're onto something important and that the ILR School has a unique capacity to bring such diverse groups together," said ILR senior lecturer Lance Compa, one of the faculty organizers. "Many participants told us that they felt more comfortable speaking freely about these issues in an academic setting provided by ILR. We didn't resolve every issue, but we made an important start toward freedom of association monitoring being 'getting it' instead of 'gotcha.'" 

The diversity of backgrounds and views of participants "made the seminar crackle with energy," said Compa. "With International Programs' research strengths on global labor issues and the ILR Extension Division's expertise in training, we are going to have many opportunities to build on this experience with more seminars of this kind, and new ones as well," he promised.

Kuruvilla and Compa were joined on the seminar faculty by ILR Global Labor Institute Director Sean Sweeney, ILR visiting assistant professor Mark Anner, Sandra Polaski of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Scott Nova of the Workers Rights Consortium and Vic Thorpe from the Europe-based monitoring group Just Solutions Network.

An account of seminar proceedings will be posted on the ILR International Program's Web site at http://www.ilr.cornell.edu/international/ and will contain additional information on freedom of association in the global economy.