Cornell University

International Programs

117 Ives Hall, 607-254-7255


May 25 2005

ILR Holds First Seminar on Workers' Rights and Corporate Social Responsibility

ILR International Programs in Ithaca and the ILR Metropolitan Office's Global Labor Institute brought top leaders from brand-name firms, worker advocacy groups, and government agencies to the Extension Division center in New York City May 23-25 for a first-of-its-kind seminar on monitoring workers' freedom of association under corporate "codes of conduct" for supplier factories overseas. (Read the summary of the conference "Rocks and Hard Places" (pdf).

Lance Compa teaching at FOA SeminarConsumer Concerns Sparked

"Exposés of child labor, workplace hazards, blacklisting of union supporters and other abuses have sparked consumers' concern about conditions in many subcontractor factories in developing countries," said ILR senior lecturer Lance Compa, one of the faculty organizers of the seminar.

U.S. Firms Respond

Compa added, "Many U.S.-based firms have responded with corporate social responsibility programs and codes of conduct to promote decent working conditions, including clauses on workers' rights to form unions and to bargain collectively. The challenge now is how to effectively monitor these codes to get real improvements for workers."

Need for Monitoring of Workers' Rights

"Brand-name firms use internal and external monitors for on-site reviews of factory performance in code compliance," explained ILR professor Sarosh Kuruvilla, who joined Compa in designing the seminar. "But monitoring for workers' organizing and bargaining rights presents challenges far different from monitoring for quantifiable things like child labor, safety standards and minimum wages. That's why we designed this first-ever seminar devoted solely to freedom of association under corporate codes."

Goals of the Seminar

Sarosh Kuruvilla teaching at FOA seminarKuruvilla cited three goals of the seminar: "to clarify our definition and understanding of FOA provisions in corporate codes; to identify the knowledge and skills needed for effective monitoring, and to see whether effective monitoring can help make respect for workers' rights a normal business practice, not an occasional bright spot in an otherwise dismal landscape."

Corporate Reps and Rights Advocates Exchange Views

Over three days of intensive work, officials from Nike, Levi's, adidas-Solomon, Nordstrom, Jones Apparel, Polo Ralph Lauren, and Nautica exchanged views and ideas for improving monitoring practices with representatives of the AFL-CIO, Human Rights Watch, Maquila Solidarity Network, American Rights at Work, and other rights advocates.

Stakeholder Monitoring Organizations Also Participate

Around the same table were "stakeholder" monitoring organizations, including the Fair Labor Association, Workers Rights Consortium, Social Accountability International, and Amsterdam-based Clean Clothes Campaign, and monitoring groups Verité, Intertek, and Cal Safety Compliance. Key officials from the U.S. Department of Labor, Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service, and the World Bank's International Finance Corporation brought perspectives from governmental and international organizations.

High Energy and An Important Start

"The diversity of backgrounds and views of seminar participants made it crackle with energy," said Compa. "We didn't resolve every issue, but we made an important start toward freedom of association monitoring being 'getting it' instead of 'gotcha.'"

ILR In a Unique Role

Compa added, "It's clear from the enthusiastic response of seminar participants that we're on to something important and that the ILR school has a unique capacity to bring such diverse groups together. Many participants told us that they felt more comfortable speaking freely about these issues in an academic setting provided by ILR."

Building on This Experience

Compa said an account of seminar proceedings will be posted on the ILR International Program's Web site, and that the site will contain additional information on freedom of association in the global economy.  He added, "With International Programs' research strengths on global labor issues and the Extension Division's expertise in training, we are going to have many opportunities to build on this experience with more seminars of this kind, and new ones as well."

Other Seminar Faculty

Kuruvilla and Compa were joined on the seminar faculty by ILR Global Labor Institute director Sean Sweeney, ILR visiting assistant professor Mark Anner, Sandra Polaski of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Scott Nova of the Workers Rights Consortium, and Vic Thorpe from the Europe-based monitoring group Just Solutions Network.

Students & Staff Were Key Participants

Student research assistants Carrie George, Peter Norlander, and Alan Benson supported the faculty in semester-long preparation and planning for the seminar. Robin Remick of ILR International Programs in Ithaca managed outreach and communications for the seminar, and Pam Whitefield and Jill Kubit of the Global Labor Institute staff in New York rounded out the planning and event team. ILR Metropolitan Office director Esta Bigler opened and closed the seminar with welcoming and sendoff remarks.

Read the Cornell News article, 6/13/05.