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Saturday, June 22, 2024
The Observer

Faculty, students weigh in on updated 'China Policy'

In an email to the Notre Dame community last Wednesday, University President Fr. John Jenkins announced six factories in China would be allowed to produce Notre Dame licensed apparel for the first time in nearly 15 years.

Eric Richelsen | The Observer

The announcement marks the evolution of a decision that came to be known as the “China Policy” and which disallowed factories in China and 10 other countries to produce apparel bearing the University’s logo. That policy, according to the website of the Executive Vice President, came about in 2001 based on recommendations by the Task Force on Anti-Sweatshop Initiatives, which was appointed in 1999 by University President emeritus Fr. Monk Malloy.

In 2013, executive vice president John Affleck-Graves appointed the Worker Participation Committee (WPC) to re-evaluate the recommendations put forth by the task force in 2001.

University spokesperson Dennis Brown said the University re-visited the policy because the committee judged it had not had its intended impact.

“The hope when the policy was adopted in 2001 was that [the ‘China Policy’] would be emulated by other universities, but no others followed our lead and our actions had no impact at all on Chinese practices,” he said in an email.

At the heart of the 'China Policy' is the issue of freedom of association, which China and other countries do not recognize as a right. Professor Daniel Graff, director of the Higgins Labor Program, described freedom of association in terms of labor unions.

“Freedom of association means the freedom to form and join unions of workers' own choosing, independent of employer or government interference," Graff said in an email. "Without that freedom, workers cannot in any authentic way express their interests.”
Professor Georges Enderle, who teaches business ethics and marketing, sat on the committee. He said each of the factories that will produce University licensed apparel had been vetted by an assessment tool developed by the WPC in conjunction with the non-governmental organization (NGO) Verite composed of more than 70 questions in English and Chinese. Enderle said this helped the WPC create a larger picture of the factories it considered.

“These are important questions which we have asked not only managers but also workers independent of those managers, outside the factories,” Enderle said. “That is an important thing — that we have the truth and honest information.”

Professor Todd Whitmore, co-director of the Catholic Social Tradition minor, sat on the original Task Force on Anti-Sweatshop Initiatives and for a time on the Worker Participation Committee.

Whitmore said in an email that he “respectfully stepped down” from the WPC when “it became clear that what the committee meant by worker participation did not meet Catholic social teaching [and] the committee planned to recommend production in China anyway.”

Whitmore said he disagreed with the decision to resume production of apparel in China.

“Given that the previous policy worked well, there is no compelling reason for the University to make product in China, a country where there is no recognition of the freedom of association,” he said. “Moreover, given that Notre Dame licenses a limit amount of product, to make product in China is to take away production from workers in those countries that recognize the workers' freedom of association.”

Graff, who does not sit on the committee, said he not was in favor of the pilot program.

"While I support the University playing a more active role in monitoring the conditions under which licensed goods are made, I don't understand why we should violate our code of conduct in regard to freedom of association in order to do so," he said. "Why not investigate where goods are already being made, in countries that do not violate our current policy? If our concerns are workers and their rights, there are plenty of factories that could use our attention. Why China?"

Enderle said the law prohibiting freedom of association was not necessarily the only thing the committee needed to look at.

“ … China isn’t allowing the freedom of association in the law, and that is true. I regret that very much,” he said. “But it is also a fact that a law of the country is one thing, and the reality on the ground is something else. And so, if we can cooperate with companies that are actually outstanding, I think it’s good for Notre Dame, and it’s good for the companies. We can support each other.”

Professor Christine Cervenak, associate director of the Center for Civil and Human Rights in the law school, reiterated that the purpose of the six-factory pilot program is to determine the viability of ethically producing in countries that do not recognize freedom of association.

“We still don't know whether Notre Dame will expand production to China beyond the very limited production carried out during the pilot phase,” she said in an email. “The pilot is meant to determine whether we can do better by limited and principled engagement at the factory level, versus continuing the policy of non-engagement.”

Junior John Kennedy currently serves as the president of BaseND, a student club that encourages socially-conscious business practices. Kennedy echoed the committee’s sentiment that getting other universities and institutions on board with the policy needed to be a priority.

“While I do not agree with the limits of the Chinese government, I think that it is important to recognize and support the companies operating ethically even without governmental obligation,” he said in an email. “The previous policy, though bold in its righteousness, failed to enact change due to the lack of participation from other universities.”

Enderle agreed and said the steps taken to create the new policy would be helpful in creating a sustainable model for ethical business practice to be implemented in other countries and by other institutions.

“We want to get the full picture, not just China,” he said. “China is, so to speak, the first step. … The final goal is to have a consistent code of conduct for companies and factories around the world which align with our mission as a Catholic university. We want to do that in the hope that other universities will join us afterwards.”