Protecting the Vulnerable

India Gravel Quarries (U.Roberto (Robin) Romano Papers, Archives & Special Collections, University of Connecticut Library)
India Gravel Quarries (U.Roberto (Robin) Romano Papers, Archives & Special Collections, University of Connecticut Library)

UConn Human Rights Conference Gathers Experts to Address Ways to Watch Over Garment Workers

The new shirt that you are wearing is impeccably tailored and bears a prominent designer label, so it must be responsibly sourced.

Right?

Could it be that the buttons were made by child laborers? The shirt was sewn in a dangerous, fire-trap factory? Or the garment worker who made it can’t support her family on the meager wages she earns in a 16-hour work day?

Some of the world’s foremost business experts, academics and human rights activists gathered Oct. 5-6 at UConn for a business and human rights conference titled, “Protecting Rights at the End of the Line: Stakeholder Engagement in Light Manufacturing.” The event was organized by the UConn Business and Human Rights Initiative, a partnership of the Thomas J. Dodd Research Center, the School of Business, and the Human Rights Institute.

2017 Business and Human Rights Conference

The participants’ collective goal is to establish a framework where others have fallen short—to draw on the investments of retailers, the strengths of governments, the insights of watchdogs and the humanity of many to find solutions for what, thus far, has remained a vexing problem.

“This conference is a testament to what we can do here at UConn. We have a tremendous capacity to convene people across different fields, from all over the country and the world, to ask and try to find answers to difficult questions facing business and society,” said business law professor Stephen Park, who serves as director of the UConn Business and Human Rights Initiative.

“This particular event comes at an opportune time given all the questions about the ability and commitment of governments and corporations to protect the world’s most vulnerable workers,” Park said.

“The Business and Human Rights Initiative complements and builds on UConn’s global reputation for multidisciplinary research and teaching in human rights, as well as the School of Business’s commitment to ethical management and social responsibility,” he said. The conference is expected to yield a white paper, a book, and academic articles, as well as lay the groundwork for more in-depth engagement on community-based approaches to business and human rights and other topics.

“The CIBER program was an enthusiastic sponsor of this conference, recognizing the tremendous impact these decisions have on workers, manufacturers, retailers and consumers,” said Arminda Kamphausen, associate director. “We look forward to sharing the results of this collaboration with many and look forward to changes to corporate policy in nations in which they do business.”

Garment Workers among the Most Exploited in Recent History

More than 1,100 garment workers were killed and an additional 2,000 more were injured when the Rana Plaza building collapse in Bangladesh in 2013. In the year before the collapse, two garment factory fires, in Pakistan and Bangladesh, killed more than 350 and left many others disabled. They were the deadliest garment factory fires in nearly a century. These tragedies thrust the need for public information about apparel sourcing into the spotlight.

Although the exact number of workers being mistreated is difficult to calculate, the International Trade Union Confederation lists 10 countries as having the worst workers’ rights violations, and five of them (Egypt, Colombia, Guatemala, Turkey and Bangladesh) are among the largest sources of apparel manufacturing.

The conference participants acknowledged the task of creating transparency and improving working conditions at times seems Herculean. Only about 25 percent of companies have supply chain visibility, said Liz Kennedy, vice president of corporate responsibility for IMG College Licensing, which represents 200 U.S. colleges and universities, including UConn.

In Bangledesh, many subcontractors operate without monitoring, added Dorothee Baumann-Pauly, director of research for the Center for Business and Human Rights at NYU’s Stern School of Business, who is well versed in the situation in labor relations in that country.

“All current initiatives deal with the tip of the iceberg, but it goes much deeper,” she said. “Transparency is necessary to monitor and support labor standards, but it’s insufficient. Factories will never be safe, for example, if the electric supply isn’t safe. And that’s beyond what a single corporation can achieve.”

Participants also talked about layers of obstacles, including corruption in governments; supplier pressure to meet unrealistic delivery deadlines; human rights policies that are ignored; the need for third-party monitoring of conditions and the need for better communication between manufacturers and retailers.

They also agreed that investors and consumers need to be knowledgeable, so that companies with the best human rights track records can be recognized and rewarded.

“The prices of goods are cheaper today than they were five years ago,” said Nathan Fleisig, compliance manager at Outerstuff, Ltd., a designer and manufacturer of branded youth sports apparel. “I think the big gap in this discussion is that much of the retailing community isn’t coming to the table. We’ve had Top Five buying companies in the world in our office, and we show them our transparency program, and we get nowhere. Until retailers come to the table and give a little, it is difficult for factory owners.”

UConn Demanded Better Accountability after Apparel Problems Came to Light in 2004

UConn became deeply invested in human rights and manufacturing issues in 2004, according to UConn political science and human rights professor and lead conference organizer Shareen Hertel. After both the men’s and women’s UConn basketball teams won NCAA championships, the university was implicated in unethical practices occurring in its third-party managed supply chain, despite its membership in a key monitoring organization, the Workers’ Rights Consortium (WRC).

“Immediately, the president of the university at the time, Philip Austin, convened a task force to look at those issues, to look at how we were managing our brand and logo and what we could do more effectively,” she said. Since then, the University’s ethics, licensing and purchasing personnel have worked hard to adopt new practices governing the way UConn does business, based on a potential bidder’s ethical and environmental practices. Today, UConn is a member of both the WRC and the Fair Labor Association (FLA) and its own Vendor Code of Conduct internalizes ethical purchasing across the University’s entire supply chain.

“It’s enabled UConn to use its buying power to really incentivize corporations to do the types of things we discussed at this conference,” Hertel said.
Kennedy, at IMG College Licensing, works with some 200 nonprofit colleges and universities and their licensing programs, as well as collegiate bowl games and the NCAA. She said colleges are on the “front lines” of human rights reforms in manufacturing. But what seems like a straight-forward solution, usually isn’t, she said.

“There’s an assumption that if students and worker advocates target the largest business-to-consumer brands, there will be the sea of change that trickles down through all ends of our sourcing economy,” she said. “And we’ve not found that to be the case.”

Each company has a unique supply chain and “taken together, they’re gigantic,” she said. “So we really need to think, ‘What will be a more effective way to get the systemic change that we’re looking for—that most universities are really actively looking for?’ because universities don’t want to have business practices of their own that conflict with their mission.”

No Instant Fixes to These Problems

Meg Roggensack, a senior adviser to the International Corporate Accountability Roundtable and an adjunct professor at Georgetown University Law Center, said the solution won’t come quickly or easily.

“This is a long game,” she said. “It takes a long time to build consensus around standards, to agree on what the metrics are for evaluating performance, and then to see progress. And for the people on the ground, who are affected by these practices, which can sometimes be frustrating. But I think the main takeaways are that you need a group of stakeholders who are at the table. These are shared problems, they’re complicated, they require multiple perspectives to come to some solution.”

She said one of the challenges is to amass the right people in the discussion. “We have a lot of good companies in this dialogue. We need more! Amazon, for instance, is not at the table. I could cite a number of other big players,” she said.

Some Cause for Optimism

One of the problems is that companies today are under tremendous pressure, said Doug Cahn, a 15-year Reebok executive who now runs his own company, The Cahn Group, geared toward establishing supply chain codes of conduct. For-profit entities are consumed with worry about the short-term viability of business, and struggle to focus on the longer-term investments, he said.

“Being very focused can sometimes be a constraint on their ability to listen outside of the narrow confines of what they need to do,” he said. “We need to be able to break out of that in helpful ways and provide a ‘safe space’ so that a broader set of stakeholders can be heard and inform decision making for today, tomorrow and for that long-term.”

Cahn, who has spent a great deal of time in ‘countries of production’ and walked the factory floors said he has an understanding of the challenges of both factory and retail, in the footwear, apparel, toys and electronics industries.

“It’s been helpful for me to be able to shape an understanding of what will work and what will not. We need to identify what ‘good’ looks like in the context of what’s possible,” said Cahn, who leads an initiative called Better Buying, which is devoted to improving workplace conditions worldwide.

Cahn said he is most hopeful about the way technology is impacting vulnerable workers. Even in the most remote areas, many have access to mobile phones and can communicate concerns at a factory or farm, a process that didn’t exist even 10 years ago.

“I operate a worker helpline that 1.3 million workers in Bangladesh have access to. We get over 300 substantive calls every month, and that couldn’t have happened 5 or 10 years ago,” he said.

“More generally I think we do see more awareness on the part of companies about the need to respect rights and consumers that are increasingly aware. Perhaps it’s not yet to the extent that is necessary to drive rapid change… but still if you look back 10, 20 or even 30 years in the rear-view mirror, we do see change,” he said. “It becomes a question about whether you see the glass as half-full or half-empty. I choose to see it half-full, because it allows us to take steps forward in meaningful ways, however incremental those are.”