Reversing an earlier decision, Ohio State has now decided to participate in a group established to explore ways to more effectively monitor the working conditions in foreign factories that produce collegiate apparel.
Last spring, OSU’s administration rejected a university-appointed task force’s recommendation to join the group.
Professor Jim Brudney, a member of the Labor Studies Task Force, said he was pleased that university administration “decided to reconsider and listen to us. In the meeting on May 28, it was evident that everyone who had been on the task force was very disappointed.”
Because OSU collects more revenue from its apparel than any other university, its participation in efforts to curb sweatshop abuses is a moral obligation, Brudney said. About $9.3 million in OSU apparel was sold last year.
The task force had worked for more than a year, reviewing a proposal drafted by an international labor rights monitoring organization called the Worker Rights Consortium.
Members of the OSU task force had anticipated that the university would authorize joining the group.
“I think we did not expect the initial reaction to be negative,” Brudney said. Several members of the task force, including Brudney, wrote a letter to the administration expressing their surprise and disappointment.
The university administration said it was concerned the group would draft a plan that might violate trade laws and increase the cost of apparel. Furthermore, administrators said the definition of labor violations were too vague to enforce.
Their biggest fear, however, was that by joining the working group, the university would be obligated to adopt the program it created, said Helen DeSantis, the assistant vice president of the Office of Business and Finance. DeSantis spoke on behalf of Vice President William Shkurti in the task force.
In June the administration informed the task force that OSU would join the working group.
“Senior management reconsidered its position and agreed to join the working group after further clarification,” DeSantis said in an e-mail. Scott Nova, executive director of the WRC, sent the administration a letter to address the concerns they had about the program.
OSU, sent Nova a letter in July telling him they would join the group and work to draft the Designated Supplies Program, which would reduce the number of factories making collegiate apparel so they could be monitored more closely and enforce labor rights.
Because there are so many factories in many places internationally which may close and re-open at a whim, it makes it too difficult to monitor labor standards, said Theresa Yoon, president of the OSU chapter of United Students Against Sweatshops in an e-mail.
“Plus if a factory’s total output of product is say only 8 percent collegiate apparel, we cannot have much say in their labor standards which is how many factories ignore our codes of conduct,” Yoon added. “The DSP will designate factories to make only college apparel so that we can actually regulate the conditions.”
DeSantis said the university would commit itself to helping work out the legal, economic and logistical challenges within the program. However, this is only if OSU may “exercise its discretion in implementing the plan that the working group ultimately endorses,” she said.
The university has already selected a representative to speak on OSU’s behalf in the working group. Mike Mitchell, associate general counsel in the Office of Legal Affairs and member of the task force will be speaking on OSU’s behalf. Citing Office of Legal Affairs policy that bans attorneys from speaking to the Lantern, Mitchell declined to comment.
Mitchell is “someone who has worked with us before, so we’re looking forward to working with him,” Nova said. He said Mitchell had sat in on working group meetings when OSU was still debating whether to join.
Nova said the working group has not met recently, citing legal issues.
“Right now it is a waiting game,” said “The WRC [which will monitor the Designated Supplies Program] is still waiting to receive a ruling from the Department of Justice Anti-Trust before the actual DSP process can be started.”
Yoon said she believes once the process starts, it is up to students to keep the university on track.
“While we are headed in the right direction, it will be important for students to keep pressure on the university to ensure that we actually sign onto the Designated Suppliers Program,” Yoon said. “The student body should continue to hold the Ohio State Administration accountable for its role in social responsibility.”