Sweatshop activist tells students to push for reform
By TIM LOGAN
For 20 years, Michael Posner has battled for human rights around the world.
He brought that fight to Notre Dame Monday to talk about enforcement of fair labor practices in apparel manufacturing.
"There are, daily, tens of thousands of abuses occurring in workplace settings around the world," said Posner, executive director of the Lawyers Commission on Human Rights.
He detailed the attempts of activists to fight sweatshop labor and of the recently-created Fair Labor Association (FLA), which brings together labor and industry to address the issue.
The activist encouraged students to stay vocal on the issue and continue to push for reform in labor standards.
"There is so much to be done here and it's not going to happen unless people raise their voices and keep fighting," he said. Student protests nationwide against sweatshops have pressured many universities to take leadership roles on fair labor.
Notre Dame created a Task Force on Anti-Sweatshop Initiatives in March and the University has also hired an independent consulting firm, PricewaterhouseCoopers, to inspect factories where Notre Dame licensed apparel is manufactured.
Posner applauded the University's stance on the issue but questioned the long-term feasibility of University-sponsored inspections.
"I would think that in the long term it is not the business of a university to be monitoring factory conditions," he said. "I just don't think it can be sustained."
He suggested that schools continue to look at credible sweatshop monitoring coalitions and to raise issues such as living wages and factory disclosure.
Posner stressed enforcement of existing legislation as the most important step governments and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) can take to combat human rights' abuses.
"We have to move beyond simply denouncing what's wrong," he said. "We have to do something about it."
What exactly will be done has not yet been decided, Posner said, but whatever the involved groups agree upon to combat sweatshop labor must contain a system for punishing violations. The agreement should also create an extensive framework for monitoring factories where violations may be occurring and the more factories investigated, he said, the better.
"I think the problem's pretty pervasive and needs to be dealt with in a more systematic manner," he said.
The involvement of local organizations in the countries where sweatshop labor is prevalent — primarily in Southeast Asia, Africa and Latin America — is essential for success as well, he said. Local agencies provide perspective and information that larger foreign or international groups such as the FLA do not have.
"The more information that is out there, the more we know what's going on, the more local actors are involved, the more we are heading in the right direction," he said. Furthermore, the biggest problem is the lack of enforcement of local laws, and regional groups can work with larger agencies, both governmental and non-governmental, on that.
As an FLA board member, Posner has been directly involved in the negotiations for the monitoring and enforcement system of the largest fair labor group formed to date. He said he is fighting for a structure that includes a monitoring system and a process by which labor abuses can and will be remedied across the board. However, some have criticized the FLA board — which includes six industry representatives and six labor representatives — for being too closely tied to apparel manufacturing.
Posner contended that it is better for anti-sweatshop activists to debate with industry than to leave the FLA in protest. Discussion is a better method of affecting change than simple denunciation, he said..
"There is a risk of being used by [companies]," Posner said, alluding to the public relations boost some apparel manufacturers have gained from joining the FLA. "You have to take some risks to set up any accountability and to get something worthwhile."
Posner's lecture "Public Disclosure of Workplace Sites" was sponsored by the University Task Force on Anti-Sweatshop Initiatives, the Program in Catholic Social Tradition, the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies and the Department of Theology.
All News Stories for Tuesday, October 5, 1999