Improving People’s Lives
Katy Habr ’18 loved living in Kuwait as a teenager, but saw labor conditions there that troubled her.
Immigrant workers were sponsored by Kuwaiti citizens who held their passports, preventing them from leaving or changing jobs. Many workers earned low wages. “A lot of them were treated very unfairly,” Habr said.
Habr saw the need to go beyond the personal and tackle systemic labor issues around the world. She is among a number of ILR students and alumni engaged in social responsibility as a personal and or professional focus.
Allison Considine ’17, who grew up in Rochester, N.Y., was sure she wanted to do some good in the world when she enrolled in ILR.
Both women joined the Cornell Organization for Labor Action, a student group that has been instrumental in the university adoption of a more socially responsible purchasing policy, most visibly in regard to college apparel, and that has supported Ithaca and campus worker organizing.
“I just really fell in love with the work,” Considine said. “It’s easy to be alienated from where our clothes come from. ... But, a university can have an impact on how huge companies do business globally. It helped build my sense of power.”
Considine spent part of January in Vietnam touring apparel and footwear factories for a research paper on wildcat strikes and is now employed as an organizer with the California Nurses Association/National Nurses United.
Habr also hopes to work for a union. “All issues are connected to each other,” she said. Environmental issues such as deforestation, human trafficking, forced labor and women’s rights intersect, she said.
Tom van Haaren MILR ’11, also sees how issues are connected. He works as a senior adviser in responsible sourcing for ICTI CARE Foundation, which strives to improve conditions in toy factories, mainly in Hong Kong. Van Haaren works with brands and retailers.
He also is working on projects with children whose parents must leave them with family in rural China while the parents work in factories. “The people want to make a living, and they don’t have other means,” van Haaren said.
The workers often can only go home once a year, at the Chinese New Year, to visit their children. Van Haaren and his colleagues are working to make it so the parents can spend summers with their children, since the work is largely seasonal, peaking during the summer in order for toys to ship in time for Christmas.
Van Haaren didn’t expect to be working overseas, and said he wishes he had taken advantage of more global opportunities when he was an ILR student.
He is working with Professor Sarosh Kuruvilla, the Andrew J. Nathanson Family Professor at ILR, to increase global options for students.