Harvard paper caught in 'living wage' debate

by Rachel Osterman | 8/2/01 5:00am

The Harvard Crimson found itself at the center of a media controversy this week, following the 128-year-old newspaper's decision to outsource a major archival project to low-wage workers in Cambodia.

The matter of dispute centers on whether the Crimson contradicted itself by supporting a "living wage" for campus employees while hiring inexpensive overseas labor to make electronic archives that go back to the publication's first issue in 1873.

The Crimson and many of the same labor leaders on campus who staged a "living wage" sit-in at the administration building don't seem to think so. But some media outlets do.

The controversy began with a front page Boston Globe article accusing the Crimson of "placing itself at odds with a major cause of activists at Harvard and other campuses: stopping US business interests from exploiting low-wage, Third World workers as a source of cheap labor."

Since then, accounts of the Crimson have appeared in the pages of national newspapers and on the airwaves of major radio programs. The Crimson president estimates that he has been interviewed by dozens of reporters.

But instead of merely focusing criticism on the Crimson's outsourcing plan, the dispute has raised the thorny question of what constitutes fair use of overseas labor.

While the Crimson acknowledges that it outsourced the archival project to save money, it denies all charges of exploitation.

"Our main goal was obviously to get a good price to do something we thought was important," Crimson president Matthew MacInnis told The Dartmouth. "And we thought it was a plus to do something good for the region."

The Crimson's $500,000 undertaking will result in one of the largest online newspaper databases, Crimson editors say. Last week, MacInnis signed a $45,000 contract to have about 20 Cambodian typists archive the 19th century editions of the Crimson. The rest of the labor will be located in the United States and India.

The Crimson denies any charges of hypocrisy.

"I don't see what the conflict is," MacInnis said. "We're paying so much beyond the living wage in Cambodia, there's no conflict between what we have said about a living wage."

In fact, initial campus protest to the Crimson's outsourcing has subsided since the Globe's story first broke.

While leaders in the "living wage" sit-in initially deplored the newspaper for contradicting itself, many of those criticisms have started to disappear.

These activists cite the wages and benefits the typists will receive, in addition to promised independent monitoring. The Cambodian-based portion of the archival project is being conducted by Digital Divide Date, a non-profit company that just opened an office in Phenom Penh.

The Crimson says that Digital Divide Date has assured the newspaper that workers are paid $2.40 a day, more than four times the World Bank's poverty line figure for conditions in the sprawling capital.

"On a broad level, as long as the monitoring they have in place is complete and they can really deliver on the conditions they have set forth for the employment, that's a really great thing," said Zayed Yasin, a Harvard senior who helped organize the "living wage" sit-in earlier this year.

Yasin said he did not see any contradiction with the Crimson's editorial stance in favor of a "living wage" for campus workers because "it seems like for Cambodia, they are paying a 'living wage.' To try to apply American standards of labor costs to Cambodia doesn't make sense."

Yasin said members the Progressive Student Labor Movement, which led the sit-in, has discussed the Crimson's move, but that the organization has yet to take an official position on it. Instead, he said, most members support overseas investment so long as working conditions are humane.

"There are two different reasons to opposing global outsourcing among people in 'living wage' campaigns," he said. "For some people it's that this takes away American jobs. And for other people, it's that the conditions for workers overseas are inhumane and unacceptable. Around Harvard, it's much more the latter. Bringing money and jobs into developing countries is a worthy objective."

The Crimson is an independent newspaper that receives no funds from Harvard. All resources come from advertising, sales and alumni donations.

"Because we're independent, cost is an issue for us," MacInnis said.