By  on March 1, 2007

WASHINGTON — Apparel importers who bring billions of dollars worth of clothing and textiles to the U.S. from foreign factories each year are worried about the new trade agenda of Congressional Democrats that places a premium on workers' rights and intensifies scrutiny of global sourcing.

Thousands of companies that produce clothing abroad are concerned by demands to strengthen labor provisions in trade agreements and potential sanctions against countries that violate them. They argue that sanctions could impede commerce and that industry reforms are starting to have an impact.

One proposed bill seeks to ban imported products made in "sweatshops," a designation determined by the Federal Trade Commission. The measure would define sweatshops as factories that violate core labor standards, including the right to organize and bargain collectively; the prohibition of forced labor and child labor, and acceptable working conditions with respect to a minimum wage, hours worked and occupational and safety requirements.

The House also is set to consider a bill this week that would make it easier to unionize U.S. factories and workplaces, which has polarized the industry.

Some of these proposals are not new, but they are gaining momentum since Democrats took control of Congress for the first time in 12 years.

Lawmakers are negotiating with U.S. Trade Repre­sentative Susan Schwab and other trade officials to strengthen the labor provisions in pending trade agreements as a condition for renewing President Bush's trade promotion authority, which expires June 30. Democrats have been pressing the administration to incorporate adherence to International Labor Organization standards that include abolishing slave and forced labor and recognizing the right to collective bargaining.

The fashion industry, which has spent several years developing codes of conduct and compliance programs to monitor factories for labor abuses and health and safety dangers, has growing concerns about the implications of the debate on Capitol Hill.

"I think the approach that has been taken to date is sufficient, but it is clear that the new majority in Congress is insisting on a review of this [labor standards] issue and are going to look to put in additional language in trade agreements," said Mark Jaeger, senior vice president and general counsel at Jockey International. "They just need to be careful they don't take away the incentive to engage in trade in the first place in terms of our ability to plan [production] in a country."

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