After publishing a column questioning the working condition and workers rights policies at DKU, I received an email from Nora Bynum, the former director of global strategy for DKU who is currently on sick leave. In the email, she asked if I “had a chance to look at the brief report that [she] prepared for the Academic Council last year which spoke about workers rights and wages in perhaps a more balanced way.” I don’t know what exactly was insinuated with the phrase “more balanced way.” Perhaps she was suggesting I had a particular agenda when questioning the details of working conditions at Kunshan, or maybe she wanted to give her fair, removed, unbiased perspective on the situation as the vice provost for DKU.
Regardless, after looking through the Academic Council’s website, I was able to find a report from May 2013 on DKU site conditions and the information I found was unsettling.
To provide some context, the population of Kunshan is two million—1.2 million of those people are migrants and 300,000 of those migrant workers work in construction. At DKU, most of the construction workers are migrant workers and the working conditions meet or exceed Chinese standards of labor.
It’s hard to get a clear picture of the exact environment for workers at the DKU construction site. At DKU, most construction workers choose to live in prefabricated, temporary housing with up to six workers in each room, including children. Consultants who have visited the site have suggested the site needs sanitation improvements, which as of this last report have not been addressed. The bamboo walking surfaces and metal scaffolding in some areas are in poor condition. There are no harnesses for workers working at certain heights. This hardly feels familiar—all we see is the construction of the West Union building and Perkins Library, we are removed from the lives of the workers, but we trust there is a safety standard that is maintained. We trust the construction workers on our campus return home to rooms of their own. While I recognize construction at DKU can’t be held to the same standards as Duke, I expect Duke to prioritize these issues. Our service employees are just as essential to the academic process as our renowned faculty and impressive consortiums, yet we distance ourselves from them. They are others, without institutional clout or pedigree, but we rely heavily on them. Any instance that jeopardizes the reputation of our figureheads becomes national news, yet safety conditions and quality of life for the operational force behind our institution is overlooked.
Later in the statement to the Academic Council, Bynum states “we note that Kunshan appears to understand Duke's concern that we be part of a project that reflects our core values.” But “appearance” only goes so far, and the definition of what Duke’s core values are is getting hazier. Construction is almost complete at Kunshan, and we don’t know if these standards of labor were ever improved, and even if they were, did they meet standards that “reflect our core values?” I am beginning to doubt the validity of administrators tossing around the phrase “core values,” when it’s questionable how committed they are to upholding them. If indeed worker safety and workers rights were a value Duke was devoted to, the administrators would be more diligent in ensuring these issues rank among their priorities.
Luckily, DKU was not completely remiss in solving other construction site problems. Bynum stated that the “Kunshan government responded to our requests to protect workers from fall hazards by installing physical barriers and handrails across open shafts, and they have implemented a program to raise temporary electrical construction cabling off the ground, to prevent tripping and shock hazards.” All are measures that protect the lives and health of the workers. But what about their quality of life? What can we say for ourselves when the workers go home to dormitories with poor sanitation, or go without pay on days when weather conditions prevent them from working, or when they are not paid a living wage?
There is more to building a University than academic freedom, state-of-the-art facilities and global health programs. There is an entire labor force of migrant workers who are a peripheral priority. Peter Lange, Duke University Provost and Chair of the DKU Board of Trustees, was recently awarded with honorary Kunshan citizenship, given his contributions to the city. Duke has the opportunity to take these contributions even further and promote conditions that foster a respect and appreciation for the workforce we benefit from tremendously.
Adrienne Harreveld is a Trinity senior. This is her final column of the semester. Send Adrienne a message on Twitter @AdrienneLiege.