activist notes

Living Wage by activistnotes

By Ian Hussey

In response to my second letter to the fair trade movement in which I said it was difficult to define “living wage” tight enough to put into institutional purchasing policy, James Douglas of United Students Against Sweatshops Canada made an interested comment in “tak[ing] a bit of an exception to the idea that a living wage is too difficult to define.”

I am writing this post to respond to James, not to disagree with him. Though, as you’ll see, I take a bit of a sidetrack before getting around to my response. I have copied James’s full comment below when I actually get around to addressing it and the issue of defining “living wage” in institutional purchasing policy. This discussion isn’t limited to the two of us, otherwise I wouldn’t write it here.

I should say from the outset that I haven’t been trained on the Designated Suppliers Program (DSP). On a Equinomics conference call recently between Patrick Clark, Amanda Wilson and myself, Pat and I both admitted we aren’t that familiar with this program, or not as much as we would like and need to be, and are looking to learn more about it over the coming months. I think Pat gained some No Sweat organizing experience at Trent University, though his organizing there was predominantly around securing a Fair Trade Certified Product Purchasing Policy, or so is my understanding. Unlike Pat, I don’t have any No Sweat organizing experience. Though I have done some No Sweat or “ethical purchasing” policy analysis, and have been asked to comment on several policies. Policies written before the DSP came along. I’m a bit of a policy wonk, what can I say.

It is worth noting, I think, that the Worker Rights Consortium (WRC) has 181 College and University Affiliates. Trent is one of about five Canadian post-secondary schools who are currently affiliated with the WRC, at least according to their website. Clearly we can improve on that number. And that isn’t meant in a disrespectful manner to the Canadian student No Sweat movement in any way. For me, that’s motivating.

A lot of the discussions on Activist Notes to date, at least implicitly, have been part of ongoing dialogues meant for larger purposes. These conversations, at least in my mind, are part of a continual learning process, but for the emerging Equinomics they are also about establishing or figuring out an organizational ideology and understanding of various trade justice issues or “movements.”

I think that is one of the reasons why Pat, Amanda and I are writing an essay comparing some aspects of the organizing and politics of United Students Against Sweatshops and United Students for Fair Trade. For instance, if you click on the USFT web link, there is a photograph on the main-page of the website. What is your impression of that photograph? During a Skype conversation with Pat a while back I mentioned it in passing. We ended up having a great spontaneous discussion about it. 

Anyway, Pat just sent me the first draft of the USAS vs USFT article (for lack of a better working title). It will be a while – likely a few months – before this article is ready for submission for publication. Since we will be submitting this paper to a peer-review journal, we’ll have to discuss what we will or can make available on Activist Notes, even if it is simply where or how to acquire the article should it be published in a journal.

Now, some people might think we are being shit disturbers by writing this paper. That is not our intent. As organizers, I think writing this essay together will give all of us a deeper understanding of our work. As catalysts for a developing organization in Equinomics, we also have a lot to sort out. Realizing this, Amanda is currently re-jigging the tentative agenda for the Equinomics May 16-17th meeting to enable us to hash out some of these things with a small group of comrades. We feel we need this collective understanding as a basis to move forward with Equinomics. Amanda also recently made the great procedural point that though we can discuss potential directions for how to organize the governance structure and constitution of Equinomics in the May meeting, those things need to be worked out with and ultimately approved by a larger group of student trade justice organizers. The May meeting isn’t a student meeting persay. So, a decision-making discussion of Equinomics’s governance structure and constitution may end up occurring at, and perhaps being the focus of, the Activist School scheduled for October 3rd – 5th. 

So, all that said, education by committee on the issues of defining “living wage” in institutional purchasing policy and the Designated Supplier Program:

James’s comment that prompted this post in the first place reads as follows.

“I just want to take a bit of an exception to the idea that a living wage is too difficult to define. If you can make a budget and keep track of your money then you can find a reasonable number or range for a living wage. People seem comfortable using the term “poverty line” yet somehow often not “living wage”. Presumably the idea of a living wage is also where the idea of a minimum wage is -supposed- to stem from.

“Obviously it is different in different areas but I think with proper research and connections to people that live in the area there is no reason one couldn’t put a number or reasonable range on what a living wage is. The Worker’s Rights Consortium has a few examples of living wage calculations on their website:

“I don’t like it when people take an attitude that living wages are just too hard to predict. I think people use this as a stalling tactic and we see that when asking Universities to sign onto the Designated Suppliers (sic) Program in No Sweat work.”

As I said at the beginning of this post, I am writing to respond to James, not to disagree with him, and I have not been trained on the DSP.

So, first, I didn’t say “living wage” was too difficult to define. I said it was difficult to define tight enough to go into institutional purchasing policy. Maybe that sounds nit-picky, but those are two vastly different things, at least in my mind. But I take your point that people seem to be more comfortable using the term “poverty line” than “living wage.” Though, clearly, these two terms do not signify the same thing. It is interesting to think of why the one seems “more comfy” than the other.

In my experience, policy writers and analysts, institutional purchasing managers, politicians and school executives/administrators, would not accept the argument “Obviously [a living wage] is different in different areas but I think with proper research and connections to people that live in the area there is no reason one couldn’t put a number or reasonable range on what a living wage is.” Now, again, I don’t know much at all about the DSP so maybe that program covers this issue, but this line of argument wouldn’t fly in a discussion about writing an ethical purchasing policy for garments, in my opinion. And if the DSP does cover this, please tell me more about that, because that would be quite an achievement. I honestly haven’t had the time yet to read much about the DSP on the WRC website. One of the reasons I say that argument wouldn’t fly is that a policy is, amongst other things, looking to define terms. It isn’t looking to put a number or reasonable range on something like a living wage. Especially with products coming from all over the world. So, presumably, the DSP has a focused scope. That argument as it stands, in my mind, is open to abuse, but maybe I don’t have all the information on this. Actually, I know I don’t, hence the questions.

And, again, I didn’t say a living wage was “just too hard to predict”, I said it is difficult to define the term tight enough to put it into institutional purchasing policy. Though, it seems to me at least, any sort of living wage estimate or range you come up with would presumably need to change as food prices, gas prices, and so on change, which happens all the time of course. So maybe it’s just me but I don’t buy that argument, not with the information I’m currently working with anyway. Does the DSP actually define “living wage”? If so, what is the wording?  

Having said all that, I’m sure schools stall all the time when dealing with No Sweat organizers. Perhaps by answering my questions, you’ll also implicitly or explicitly indicate how you go about dealing with stalling tactics. One answer to stalling tactics is obvious: sit-ins. Which you see in No Sweat organizing way more than Fair Trade organizing. Considering you never see it in Fair Trade organizing, haha. That is one of the major differences in the two organizing processes.


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hey y’all!
Check out more about the DSP on the WRC website:

also, there is some written in the USAS manual:

These can explain in probably a lot better than I can.

Here is the definition of the living wage that the WRC has in their code of conduct:
A living wage is a “take home” or “net” wage, earned during a country’s legal maximum work week, but not more than 48 hours. A living wage provides for the basic needs (housing, energy, nutrition, clothing, health care, education, potable water, childcare, transportation and savings) of an average family unit of employees in the garment manufacturing employment sector of the country divided by the average number of adult wage earners in the family unit of employees in the garment manufacturing employment sector of the country.

Question 8 in the DSP FAQ is about determining a living wage Of course the amount will need to be adjusted over years just like our minimum wage but I think that is OK.

The WRC has this living wage requirement in their code (they only use one when monitoring) so any university affiliated with the WRC have largely already agreed to the idea of a living wage under this definition. Putting it in their own code is kind of superfluous. Any university that is serious about upholding its code is an affiliate of the WRC.

The main problem is implementation so really I don’t know if worrying about precise definition is a good area to focus on. The DSP is meant to help with implementation. It is essentially a way to enable universities to actually enforce these codes they have adopted. Adopting it follows directly from having a code of conduct since it is basically the only way to follow it. The program takes a different tact from previous efforts because it offers real support to factories in return for following the code.

Implementation is hard because if factories follow university codes the industry will force them out of business so any complying factories close. It is not enough to tell a manager who barely is keeping his company in business that they must pay their workers more. They are in a tight spot too; brands and a multitude of middlemen are a big part of the problem. Recognizing this allows a way forward.

Out of the thousands of garment factories that Universities with the WRC currently source from there are about 7 factories out there who pay a living wage, or would be happy to. There used to be 8, but BJ&J went out of business last year as universities stalled on the issue.

How to deal with genuine stalling from administrators? Always a challenge. Last year hundreds of workers in the Dominican lost one of their only hopes for a decent job and a decent way out of poverty (BJ&J went under) while comfortable administrators paid high salaries hummed and hawed about what to do. That’s not to say we should hurry and make mistakes, but it has been rather a long time now since the DSP was proposed and the time delay has been generated by university administration.

Setting deadlines and issuing ultimatums can be useful. There are a number of case studies in the USAS manual that show the usefulness of deadlines. Be wary of committees, especially ones with poor member composition (few people interested in action and human rights). Perhaps to recognize that what is often really lacking is political will.

Comment by James Douglas

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