Administration announces pilot program for manufacture of university products in Chinese factories
In an October 28 message to Notre Dame students, faculty, and staff, University President Father John Jenkins, CSC, announced that the university will begin a pilot program for the manufacture of university-licensed products in the People’s Republic of China.
According to the president’s email, selected Chinese factories will manufacture university-licensed products “to see if they can meet and sustain worker treatment standards in keeping with Catholic social teaching.” This pilot program was recommended to Fr. Jenkins by a body called the Worker Participation Committee (WPC).
Instituted in 2013 by Executive Vice President John Affleck-Graves, the WPC—comprised of students, faculty, and administrators—selected six factories in China to evaluate based on 71 criteria. After hiring a non-profit, internationally-recognized organization, Verité, to assist in its development of evaluation standards and in the evaluation process, the WPC determined that two of the six factories met acceptable standards, two required some improvements, and the final two required substantial improvements.
The two factories with acceptable standards will be those involved in the pilot program, and the university will work with them “to see if they sustain a standard of performance acceptable to Notre Dame,” Fr. Jenkins’ email read.
In addition to this pilot program, the WPC recommended an assessment of factories in other countries that allow freedom of association and thus are permitted to manufacture university-licensed products.
The WPC asked the university to review and possibly revise Notre Dame’s Licensing Code of Conduct, implemented in 2001 under the presidency of Father Edward “Monk” Malloy, CSC, to prevent factories with unjust working conditions from manufacturing university products. The review of this code would allow the university “to see if it should address other human rights concerns,” as well as “include a richer understanding of worker participation” and reflect “the best practices and the principles of Catholic social teaching.”
In his email, Fr. Jenkins prefaced the WPC recommendations by explaining the Catholic social teaching origins of the Licensing Code of Conduct, stemming from a view of work as “a fundamental right and good for mankind.”
As a result of this conception, Catholic social teaching maintains that workers are entitled to a just wage, reasonable work hours and rest, safe and healthy working conditions, and pensions, as well as the right to form labor and trade unions to promote social justice.
When Notre Dame instituted this policy, factories in 11 countries—including China—were precluded from producing university-licensed goods. Father Jenkins called the implementation of this policy “bold, principled, and widely applauded,” but conceded that, since 2001, “no other universities have adopted similar policies, and Notre Dame’s action has had no discernable influence on the practices of nations that deny freedom of association.”
“[T]he hope was that the policy would be emulated by other universities and bring about change in China,” university spokesman Dennis Brown told the Rover. “The reality is that no others followed our lead and our actions had no impact at all on Chinese practices.”
As a result of this, Brown said, committee turned to a partnership with Verité “to assess factories that our licensees believe have the potential to operate in a manner consistent with Notre Dame’s values—despite Chinese law. The pilot project will help us determine if this is a workable approach.”
Father Jenkins concluded the email with several paragraphs explaining his philosophical reasoning that prompted the decision to accept the WPC recommendations.
In response to Fr. Jenkins’ email, Associate Professor of Theology Todd Whitmore penned a letter to the editor published in the November 5 issue of the Observer. Whitmore, who has taught Catholic social teaching at Notre Dame every semester for 25 years, argued that the new policy violates Catholic social teaching.
In his letter, Whitmore provided several refutations of Fr. Jenkins’ application of the principle of cooperation with evil. One such critique was that the president’s email implied Notre Dame has no option but to change its policy toward China.
“The fact of the matter is that the policy against production in China had been in place for fifteen years, and Notre Dame has successfully been making products elsewhere,” Whitmore said.
“There are any number of university practices that do not fit with Catholic teaching,” Whitmore later noted. “More troubling is the use of Catholic teaching to justify practices that contravene that teaching.
“I understand the symbolic cost involved, but it would have been more direct simply to state that the university has decided not to abide by Catholic teaching on the issue,” he concluded.
Daniel Graff, Professor of History, who also serves as director of the Higgins Labor Studies Program at Notre Dame, said he is opposed to the pilot program on two levels—principle and timing.
“[I]t does represent a violation of [Notre Dame’s] pioneering code of conduct that has affirmed the centrality, even necessity, of workers’ freedom of association to form independent unions of their own choosing,” Graff said to the Rover.
Along the lines of Whitmore’s argument, Graff agreed that the university’s code of conduct is rooted deeply in Catholic social tradition, and therefore its principles should not be altered.
“I believe the university should stand by its policy and work to strengthen protections for workers’ rights in the places where licensed goods are currently being produced, rather than compromising to extend production to a country where workers are forbidden from forming their own independent organizations,” Graff said.
“If it is legitimate to apply the principle [of cooperation with evil] in the way that Jenkins does to freedom of association, then it is also legitimate to apply it to situations where there is compulsory overtime, unsafe working conditions, or forced labor, because, the reasoning would go, Notre Dame does not create those conditions, we only make products in them,” Whitmore added, pointing out the possibility of a slippery slope within the president’s reasoning.
Graff added that, as a result of his conversations with labor experts on China and the global supply chain, he believes this is particularly poor timing for such a program. “After a half-decade or more of Chinese workers successfully pushing for greater pay, safer conditions, and general improvements at the workplace, it now appears the current Chinese government is pushing back hard in order to rollback the gains and make sure Chinese workers do not enjoy greater participation at the workplace,” he said.
“In general, I don’t think that outside auditors can really gauge workplace freedoms and workers’ interests (as opposed to workplace conditions),” Graff concluded. “It takes workers on the ground to enforce their own interests, and this is not allowed under Chinese law. Thus, there are limits to what companies like Verité can measure in terms of ‘worker participation.’”
Notre Dame’s potential partnership with Zhejiang University in China, proposed nearly a year ago, remains under consideration, according to Brown. “But there is no connection between that and the licensing pilot project,” Brown added.
Alexandra DeSanctis is a senior who shops for clothes at the American Girl doll Store. Contact her at email@example.com.