By  on March 20, 2007

The way the apparel industry addresses labor rights abroad has evolved over the past decade, but as the abuses in Jordanian factories that came to light last year attest, much work remains to be done.

On the forefront of the labor issue is Marcela Manubens, vice president of global human rights and social responsibility at Phillips-Van Heusen Corp., considered a leader in the area.

"Compliance is, in fact, an important element of our sourcing strategy," Manubens said.

PVH focuses not only on price, quality, quantity and logistics, but also on human rights and working conditions, she said.

In the Nineties, Manubens noted, there was still a debate over whether or not brands were responsible for conditions at the factories making their fashions, even if they were run by an outside contractor. An incident where such labor abuses were uncovered at a factory making goods for Kellwood Co.'s Kathie Lee Gifford line for Wal-Mart was considered a seminal moment. It led to former president Bill Clinton forming the Apparel Industry Partnership, which became today's Fair Labor Association consisting of some of the industry's top companies, and establishing codes of conduct for factories.

Today, there is a greater recognition of responsibility, but pushing toward better labor standards and conditions needs to continue, and not just for ethical reasons. In the Jordan case, after the National Labor Committee exposed the abuses, the Jordanian government took corrective measures to enforce and improve its labor laws.

Making the economic case for compliance, Manubens said not only do apparel firms importing goods from abroad have legal requirements to live up to, but also brand image concerns.

One of the remaining challenges is a lack of critical mass in the industry.

"There are a few leading brands...who really think about compliance seriously," she said, adding that some of the programs amount to merely window dressing.

Also, codes of conduct abound, but there is not collaboration or standardization of information industrywide.

Staying with a factory that meets labor standards could ultimately prove to be the cheaper alternative if moving sourcing to new factories with lower costs means additional work to get them into compliance, Manubens noted."If you stick with a supplier, you work hard with a supplier and they make these corrections, and they produce in good conditions, then they should get the reward of business," she said.

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