Office of the President
April 11, 2000
To: Code of Conduct Advisory Committee
Thank you for your recent report in which you outlined the arguments pro and con for Brown’s continued participation in the Fair Labor Association (FLA) and the Worker Rights Consortium (WRC). Your report described the significant differences of opinion which exist within your committee, and I found it helpful in understanding both sides of what has become an important national discussion in higher education.
Assuring that vendors of university-licensed goods adhere to acceptable labor standards is, after all, a discussion no college or university can or should ignore. I am pleased that Brown, led by its undergraduates, was among the first institutions of higher education to engage in the discussion. Brown undergraduates continue to provide vision and leadership both on our campus and nationally. I am also pleased that the process here has been cooperative, forthright, respectful and productive. I want to assure you and all members of the University community that Brown will remain productively engaged in the sweatshop issue and will continue the cooperative process that has been so effective in bringing the University to this point. To that end, I thought it best to respond to your report by outlining the University’s position on several questions you raised and then by asking you to continue your involvement and campus leadership in these issues as a committee.
As a faculty member and former interim provost, I followed the sweatshop discussion on the Brown campus and elsewhere. As interim president, I have noticed that the national discussion has taken a disappointing turn. Much of the energy that once was devoted to understanding and improving the plight of workers and to exposing abuses within the apparel industry appears to have been diverted to a struggle between the FLA and the WRC organizations and their members. In my view, this struggle has not only slowed our momentum, but more seriously it has the potential for undermining our success in reaching our ultimate goal.
Your report highlights some of the repeated misgivings about the FLA, particularly the way it includes corporations as full partners. Its detractors believe the FLA’s inspection program will be compromised by corporate involvement, that the FLA board will be unable to make difficult decisions because corporations will hold nearly half the seats, and that corporations will be able to use the FLA as a shortcut to certify themselves as compliant whether or not they are.
I do not intend to dismiss those issues or to treat them lightly. I do, however, believe they are insufficient grounds for the University to take the serious step of withdrawing from the FLA at this point. By participating as an active and outspoken member of the FLA’s University Advisory Council, Brown has a voice it otherwise would not have, as well as the opportunity to build coalitions of universities and colleges around particular issues. These issues may include proposed changes to the FLA’s operations. I am not persuaded that a withdrawal from the FLA by Brown would create a significant opportunity to bring about desired change within the FLA, nor do I believe that Brown could function effectively as an agent of change from outside the FLA. Brown’s credibility has always derived from our focus on the substantial issues of exploitation and from our determination to work productively to end sweatshop abuses. Our credibility rests neither on our ability to issue ultimatums nor on the threat of our withdrawal. I am convinced that any leverage we may have for helping shape the future direction of the FLA emanates from active participation within the process itself.
Whatever flaws the FLA may have, I cannot disregard the likelihood that it gives universities a potentially productive avenue for addressing sweatshop concerns and that it may, in fact, be able to effect positive change within the apparel industry. I am impressed that the FLA was able to recruit Sam Brown as its executive director. Mr. Brown’s credentials as an antiwar activist, as a leader in community service (VISTA and the Peace Corps), as a proponent of low-income housing and as an ambassador for international peace are unassailable. I also note that the International Labor Rights Fund, a non-governmental organization affiliated with the FLA, has already begun a pilot program, with assistance from Brown and other universities, to train external factory monitors in several Third World countries. I see neither a strategic advantage nor an improved ethical perspective in withdrawing from an organization which holds promise for improving the situation of apparel industry workers.
The FLA and WRC share the same ultimate goal, but they are two very different organizations. They appear to differ most markedly in their attitudes toward corporations engaged in the manufacture of apparel. Brown, as you know, is a charter member of both groups. When Brown joined the WRC, it did so with the explicit understanding that the FLA and WRC could maintain a clear focus on the overall goal of protecting the rights of workers who make apparel that bears the Brown name and symbols. That understanding remains a fundamental element in Brown’s continued membership in both groups and will be an important part of our continuing engagement in the sweatshop issue. We do not expect the two groups to agree on tactics, but we do expect them to focus on their common goal. I was encouraged to read reports from the WRC convention which indicated a greater willingness among a portion of the WRC membership to accept dual FLA/WRC membership among universities. I would ask you as a committee to observe closely the development of each organization’s programs and to evaluate the effectiveness of each in effecting positive change on an ongoing basis. Both organizations are in formative stages and we must be vigilant and proactive to ensure that what they are doing is in our best interests and consistent with our values and goals.
In closing, let me reiterate a few points and respond directly to questions raised in your report.
Brown University remains fully committed to ensuring that all University-licensed apparel is produced by licensees who respect and abide by our Code of Conduct. To that end, we will be fully supportive of both the FLA and WRC and will consider supporting any other consortia which may assist the University in achieving that goal.
Thank you for your continued hard work and thoughtful consideration of these complex and important issues.