Byline: Kristi Ellis

SAN FRANCISCO — Guatemala has embarked on a prototype labor compliance program in an effort to guarantee labor standards in the country’s apparel industry and improve relations with U.S. apparel companies that source there.
The program was detailed by Guatemalan ambassador Miguel Lamport at a conference here last week staged by the U.S. Association of Importers of Textiles and Apparel and attended by representatives from such companies as Gap, Levi Strauss and Liz Claiborne.
Lamport said that the venture, a joint effort by Guatemala’s industry and government, is aimed at attracting more U.S. companies to sourcing in the country, with assurances that labor standards are in place. There are over 200 apparel plants in Guatemala, representing about 35,000 workers.
Ernst & Young was retained to draft the program and follow up by certifying companies and conducting spot checks on factories.
To date, one apparel company with 600 employees has joined the program, according to Lamport, who added that four others, each with as many workers, are in discussions.
The package developed for this program includes such benefits as: maternity leave, consisting of 30 days prior and 54 days after birth with double pay; paid leave for foster parents to acclimate a new child to the home; five paid days for marriage; social security benefits; overtime, and 12 legal holidays.
“The U.S. companies normally are the ones that are looking for more responsible companies inside Guatemala,” Lamport said. “They are very interested that Guatemala entrepreneurs adapt to their philosophy of doing business.”
Lamport also noted that wages in the apparel industry generally have increased substantially in recent years. He said a worker who sews apparel makes approximately $230 a month, compared to less than $100 four years ago.
After the conference, Frank Kelly, vice president international trade for Liz Claiborne Inc., said that Guatemala’s initiative is a strong one.
“It’s an initiative that will hopefully be a forerunner and may be duplicated in other countries,” he said. Claiborne sources in Guatemala but Kelly would not say how much.
Laura Jones, spokeswoman for USA-ITA, called the program impressive.
“It’s a beginning, and it gives people in this country who source the confidence to know that companies there are…checking records and meeting real standards.”
A spokesman for Gap said that Guatemala’s program is encouraging. “In an effort to be competitive, it actually raises the standards of labor there,” he said. “We need the governments to be involved in the enforcement of their own labor laws.”
Gap currently does no sourcing in Guatemala. “In a move to narrow our vendor base two to three years ago, we stopped sourcing to Guatemala,” said the spokesman. “It was a one-time deal [in Guatemala] and we decided that it was not worth such widespread sourcing on small runs.”
He said Gap will watch development in Guatemala, though the company’s sourcing decisions are based on a number of factors, of which labor is only one.
“If we need a certain product that we can’t get an established vendor to do and Guatemala can fill the need and live up to our terms of the code of conduct, we would entertain [sourcing there again],” he said.
Gap became embroiled in labor issues in Central America in 1995 when the National Labor Committee, a coalition of labor and human rights groups, began a campaign to pressure U.S. firms to force improvements in apparel plants there. The NLC zeroed in on Mandarin International, a Taiwanese-owned maquiladora plant operating in the San Marcos Free Trade Zone in El Salvador, which the group alleged paid poverty wages and had poor working conditions. Executives of Gap, which did some sourcing with the plant, said at the time that their own investigations had failed to uncover violations of the retailer’s sourcing guidelines.
However, Gap established an independent monitoring program in El Salvador in early 1996 and still sources with the Mandarin plant, the Gap spokesman noted. “We have taken a painstaking effort to check out the facility and do independent audits of it,” he said.