Since 2010 Duke’s plans to partner with Wuhan University to build a campus in Kunshan, China have been fraught with controversy. Construction delays pushed back the opening date to Fall 2014. Faculty members have objected to opaque planning processes that excluded their input, and skeptics have questioned whether enrollment would meet the stated goals. These doubts were corroborated when Duke Kunshan University programs recently extended their application deadlines.
At Duke and other institutions with international campuses, some have expressed concerns about the labor standards universities maintain at their foreign sites. New York University professor Andrew Ross recently published an Op-ed in the New York Times rebuking his employer for failing to ensure adequate labor protections for construction workers at NYU’s Abu Dhabi satellite campus. He detailed the abuses faced by many of the NYUAD employees – many of whom are migrant workers—including sub-par accommodations, low salaries and arduous work hours.
Revelations like Ross’s should prompt us to think about how DKU treats its employees, in both construction and service positions. In an ideal world, Duke would regard its Chinese employees with the same dignity and respect it affords employees in Durham. It seems almost impossible, however, for Duke to enforce American labor standards at DKU. Like Abu Dhabi, Kunshan has a huge migrant worker population, a particularly vulnerable group. The problem is not poor legislation—China actually has a fairly robust labor code—but inadequate enforcement.
Although Duke’s hands are tied to some extent, the University can do more to demonstrate its commitment to protecting workers in China. Duke has already shown that it cares about social responsibility and worker’s rights: Duke contracts dining services to Bon Appétit Management Company, which emphasizes farmworkers’ rights, and Duke University Stores require their factories to abide by certain safety standards.
The University should not only prioritize workers’ rights at DKU, but it should also remain transparent about that commitment. NYU, for example, has published a “Statement of Labor Values” to govern its Shanghai Campus. Duke should consider crafting a similar document to supplement its commendable but insufficient 2013 assessment, “DKU site conditions.” Public commitments send an important message, even if implementation poses problems.
How the University stipulates its labor standards for DKU has wide implications. First, it tests Duke’s commitment to social responsibility in a place far away from student activists’ local microscopes and in an environment in which Duke will not confront legal pressure to raise standards. Moreover, attempting to align workers’ protections at DKU with labor standards in Durham would ensure ethical consistency in all of Duke’s ventures and partnerships. If Duke were to turn a blind eye to worker abuses at DKU, it would be holding DKU to a different ethical standard. The University already has a mixed record on the question of ethical consistency, exemplified by debates about academic freedom and journalistic integrity.
When it comes to labor codes at DKU, we see an opportunity for the University to reaffirm its commitment to social responsibility and to demonstrate that its values remain consistent across continents. With DKU slated to open next semester, it is essential that Duke treats on-the-ground ethical questions in China with the same gravity that those questions carry in the United States.