No sweat: Pitt should support tough workplace monitoring

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No one can justify spray painting political graffiti on the Cathedral of Learning to protest sweatshops or anything else. The building is private property, the act is vandalism and the tower is a Pittsburgh icon.

Yet on March 30 the letters "WRC," for Worker Rights Consortium, were painted over a 12-by-4.5-foot area in the Cathedral's Commons Room. Police say Danial Mohammed Khan-Yousufzai, a University of Pittsburgh student, was found outside on a bench with spray paint on his hands, shoes and pants. Although charged in the case, Mr. Khan-Yousufzai later would not confirm or deny the accusations. Still, the offense deserves prosecution.

This wrongheaded crime against property is linked to a larger legitimate issue which merits the public's and the university's attention. The global economy puts before American consumers too many products, especially apparel, that are made abroad in sweatshops by workers, sometimes underage, who toil in unsafe conditions for meager wages.

The Worker Rights Consortium is an independent group which monitors working conditions in factories, with the goal of reducing the number of sweatshops and protecting workers' rights. It has 180 colleges and universities -- including Carnegie Mellon, Duquesne, Carlow, Penn State and Temple -- as affiliates. That means they adopt a manufacturing code of conduct that supports fair labor practices and human rights for workers and incorporates that code into contracts with the licensees that make the schools' T-shirts, sweatshirts and other logo-branded products.

Not insensitive to the sweatshop problem, Pitt has been affiliated with the Fair Labor Association, which also monitors working conditions. But the FLA is funded, in part, by companies that sell college-licensed goods, which could compromise the group's role. The WRC has a reputation for being more diligent in investigating workplace conditions and more independent in its public criticisms.

If Pitt truly wanted to put the squeeze on sweatshops, it would partner with the WRC. Such a decision would not condone graffiti vandalism at the Cathedral -- that's a crime that deserves appropriate punishment -- but it would put Pitt in the ranks of other universities committed to worker rights and fair treatment.



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