The Daily Tar Heel

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Monday December 5th

Deeper questions

Using the Gildan debate as a springboard, the University community should examine UNC's position in the global corporate environment.

The University has some major decisions to make in terms of its business ties to Gildan Activewear, a blank T-shirt supplier that works with UNC licensees.

But University officials must make sure not to rush into those decisions.

The Fair Labor Association and the Worker Rights Consortium cited Gildan for violating its workers' rights by not allowing them to associate freely, by withholding their pay and by harassing them. The company added fuel to the fire by shutting down a factory in Honduras and effectively laying off 1,000 employees.

That might seem to be a black-and-white issue on the surface, as reports of the violations could lead any reasonable person to conclude that UNC shouldn't be doing business with Gildan.

But it isn't.

That's why both officials involved in the University's business relationships and outside parties concerned with Gildan's practices and the company's connection to UNC should take pause. The situation demands more than any kind of knee-jerk response.

Before UNC takes any action against Gildan, officials and observers alike should take the time to explore some ugly truths - for instance, the reality that poor treatment of workers isn't exactly rare.

Many multinational corporations have been accused of fostering poor workplace conditions and human rights violations.

Of course, the unfortunate commonality of worker abuse doesn't excuse Gildan if the cited violations are real - but it does lead to reasonable questions about the role UNC plays in the global working environment.

Whether members of the University community admit it or not, UNC can't escape the fact that - just like with any major corporation - its prominent business-related persona has steeped it in global questions about wage fairness and worker treatment.

The UNC logo is one of the most marketable in the world of collegiate merchandise. By willingly taking a prominent position in the merchandising arena, the University allows for the possibility that it will have ties to workplace wrongdoing.

If any of the University's licensees or other business connections are allowing for inadequate workplace conditions, does UNC's business relationship with the company translate into a condoning of those conditions?

The answer to this question is obvious: Of course not.

If UNC cuts its ties to Gildan, can the University easily find another supplier that sells at similar prices and quickly determine that the company has no human rights violations to its name?

Building on that, can UNC examine all of its business relationships and sever its ties to all companies in violation without threatening the stability of its merchandising revenue?

The answers to these questions aren't so obvious. At the very least, these potential dilemmas illuminate the need for further investigation.

This isn't to forget or ignore the obvious: If Gildan has committed human rights violations and acted counter to the University's code of conduct, UNC officials should strongly consider putting pressure on the company or terminating their relationship.

But it is important that committee members get all the information they need from the labor groups and other sources before they seriously ponder what action the University should take with regard to Gildan - and it is vital to go deeper into the issue.

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