ANTI-SWEATSHOP TASK FORCE TO TRY AGAIN
Byline: Joanna Ramey
WASHINGTON — The President’s anti-sweatshop task force heads back to the negotiating table here today with feuding members vowing to keep their minds open, while still defending their turfs.
Task force members, under pressure by White House and Labor Department officials to make some kind of recommendations and weary from attending meetings over an eight-month period, are ready for something to happen.
“Both from a political side and from all the organizations involved, there is a desire to reach a point where we decide whether to go on or not,” said Pharis Harvey, a task force member and director of the International Labor Rights and Research Fund. “I think we all want something to succeed. I don’t think there is anyone going into the meeting who doesn’t want these differences hammered out.”
In recent weeks, a consensus being formed by the 23-member task force began to unravel with apparel industry members facing off against those representing labor and human rights groups.
This is what is on the table going into today’s meeting: whether the industry, in conjunction with labor and human rights groups, will join forces in an association that would act as an ombudsman of conditions at apparel factories worldwide.
Specifically in dispute are the methods and guidelines by which such a body will judge factory conditions, sources say. Several obstacles remain in the way, the biggest of which is agreeing on what role labor, human rights and religious groups would have in monitoring apparel factories, particularly contractors in Third World countries producing about half of the garments sold in the U.S.
The panel has a huge job trying to meld the interests of both sides in reaching recommendations, while being true to their constituencies, sources say.
Apparel industry members want any blueprint to emphasize the use of company-employed monitors to keep tabs on factory conditions. Panel members representing labor and human rights groups, while not opposed to internal monitoring, won’t be satisfied unless some system of community-based, outside monitors be included in recommendations, sources say.
For their part, apparel officials seemed determined not to sign onto any program containing external monitoring that local labor leaders, religious groups or the like could use to hamstring company business with unfounded accusations of poor conditions or underpaid workers.
“Maybe one of the problems with the presidential task force is it’s operating in a goldfish bowl,” says Simon Villenness, a senior analyst with Franklin Research and Development, an investment firm specializing in socially responsible investments that supports outside monitoring. “There is a lot of pressure on the corporate members from the apparel community not to agree to anything that’s radical. And there is a lot of pressure on the [labor and human rights groups] not to be co-opted; not to settle for something that isn’t meaningful.”
At the time it was launched, the task force was viewed as key to former Labor Secretary Robert Reich’s tireless anti-sweatshop campaign. Although he had brought a lot of visibility to the issue and prompted companies to undertake changes, one thing he was unable to accomplish was to get apparel companies and retailers to employ outside monitors of contractors.
Labor Department officials, who have sat in on task force meetings, say they have not directly participated in the panel’s negotiations. However, Maria Echaveste, who is now the White House director of public liaison and formerly Reich’s anti-sweatshop lieutenant as administrator of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division, will be speaking to the group today, encouraging them to reach a consensus, sources say.
And what will happen should the task force fall apart?
Those involved in anti-sweatshop campaigns say they will continue with their work to try to change the minds of apparel manufacturers and retailers about external monitoring. Since the issue of sweatshops became a hot issue about five years ago, the methods targeting companies have varied widely.
Charles Kernaghan, executive director, the National Labor Committee, who is known for his militancy when fighting sweatshops, said his work will just gain more momentum if the panel doesn’t comes up with recommendations that include external monitoring.
Kernaghan, a thorn in the side of industry for several years, is most widely known for tying Kathie Lee Gifford apparel to a Honduran contractor employing children.
“Companies have to involve local religious and human rights organizations in monitoring contractors, and that’s the line we’re drawing in the sand,” Kernaghan said.