Archive for Tuesday, October 10, 2000

Sweatshops and the living wage

October 10, 2000

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Editor's note: This comment appeared recently in the Wall Street Journal.

Too bad for our nation's college presidents that they aren't graded on a curve. Because when a group of trade-minded scholars took a look at how they were responding to the "anti-sweatshop" movements on their campuses, the result was a big fat "F."

The group is the Academic Consortium on International Trade, a collection of trade lawyers and academic economists including the University of Chicago's Nobel-winning Robert Lucas. In addition to taking issue with the economics behind the increasingly fevered movement, the scholars say that when universities respond to pressure and intimidation they betray their institutional obligation to set an example of "informed decision-making."

Typically the m.o. runs something like this: A group of students, some of whom are alumni of internships with the AFL-CIO or the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees, charge that the merchandise bearing the school's logo comes from sweatshops in Asia or Latin America. Next come protests, which not infrequently turn into the occupation of the president's office or an administration building, as it did at Georgetown, Penn, Wisconsin, Michigan, Arizona and Duke.

In most cases, the demand isn't simply for better treatment of labor. Usually the activists have something more specific (and politicized) in mind: To get their schools to sign onto something called the Workers Rights Consortium. The WRC web site boasts that some 57 U.S. colleges and universities have done just that, from Brown and Smith to Georgetown, Middlebury and the University of California.

So much for "informed decision-making."

The ACIT scholars acknowledge the "good intentions" of the movement. But they worry that it is long on street protest and short on economic reality. And they say that universities have not taken advantage of the research available to them.

Maybe that's because a closer look can be embarrassing. At the heart of the anti-sweatshop movement is a concept called the "living wage," which the WRC defines as one that "provides for the basic needs (housing, energy, nutrition, clothing, health care, education, potable water, child care, transportation and savings) of an average family unit of employees in the garment manufacturing employment sector of the country divided by the average number of adult wage earners in the family unit." Note the complete lack of reference to anything like productivity or performance.

Now, multinationals such as Nike will tell you the living wage is unworkable. But we needn't take their word. The universities tell us the same thing, in that American universities have yet to apply the full "living wage" formula for their own workers, including sub-contracted employees. This isn't because our colleges are inherently sinister or exploitative; it's because the living wage as so defined is unworkable. The question for college presidents is why they would inflict on U.S. companies abroad what they themselves won't do for their own workers at home?

The real target is not simply poor factory conditions but trade itself. That is clear enough from the Internet discussion board for the lead national body, the United Students Against Sweatshops, full of tired cliches about capitalism; the constant call to turn out for increasingly ugly anti-globalization demonstrations, such as those at the World Bank/IMF meeting in Prague; or the responses to those who raise serious points, such as the Michigan student activist who emailed that the ACIT scholars are "right wing fascists who think that in order to get tenured, they have to kiss some exploitative corporation a__."

If this is what our universities are responding to, the ACIT scholars are right: It's not the students who need a lesson. It's their college presidents.

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