WARNACO QUITS ANTI-SWEATSHOP GROUP, DISAGREES WITH MONITORING PROPOSAL
Byline: Joanna Ramey
WASHINGTON — The Warnaco Group, a member of the President’s landmark anti-sweatshop task force, is bowing out in disagreement with the panel’s newly drafted recommendations.
While other industry panel members were applauding the potential effectiveness of their work, Warnaco chief executive officer Linda Wachner said Wednesday her company already has sufficient programs in place to keep tabs on working conditions and wages at the factories it owns or contracts with in 15 countries. Wachner praised the mission of the task force, but in particular took issue with its proposal for an association to oversee participating apparel and footwear companies’ monitoring of their production sites.
“We don’t want an association monitoring our company,” said Wachner, who appears to be the only official among the 12 companies participating on the task force to reject the panel’s recommendations.
As reported, the task force — after months of often heated talks since President Clinton appointed the panel in August — completed on Monday its anti-sweatshop recommendations, which are scheduled to be unveiled in a White House ceremony as early as next week. While panel members have declined to discuss details of their work, a draft copy of the proposal calls for signatory apparel and footwear companies and retailers operating as manufacturers to:
Adopt a code of conduct that, among other things, bans the employment of children younger than 15 (or 14 if the law of the country of manufacture allows). The code also states that employees can’t be forced to work more than a 48-hour week and 12 hours of overtime, except in “extraordinary business conditions” such as having to produce a rush order. In addition, the code requires workplaces to provide a healthy and safe environment and recognize employees’ right to freedom of association and collective bargaining.
Implement a corporate-run monitoring program that would keep tabs on all factories and contractors to assure they are adhering to the code of conduct. Monitoring would involve such things as unannounced inspections, auditing of payroll records and confidential interviews with employees.
Participate in a second monitoring program whereby an outside organization — which could range from an accounting firm to a human rights group, details to be decided later — can verify that internal monitoring is working.
According to the draft copy, the entire code and monitoring effort — the first of its kind to be forged by an industry in the U.S. — would be overseen by an association, the details of which also have yet to be pounded out. The association would be comprised of officials from industry, human rights and labor groups.
The association would determine criteria for company membership, as well as procedures and qualifications for outside monitors. It would also develop ways to help companies remedy problems of noncompliance with the code of conduct. In addition, it would be a source of information for consumers to inquire about which companies are adhering to the no-sweatshop standards.
Detailing her objections to these proposals, Wachner said Warnaco already employs an outside, private auditor to insure its factories and contractors are following the company’s own strict code of conduct. She said Warnaco doesn’t need a “trade association” such as the one planned by the task force to sign off on whether conditions and wages at its production sites are up to speed. Specifically, Wachner’s concerns with the association lie with confidentiality of proprietary information, as well as accountability of the outside monitors themselves.
“I think the confidentiality is critical,” Wachner said. “We have our standards and systems in place, and we believe each company should monitor their own.”
Such an association was a key item for labor and human rights groups serving on the 23-member task force, arguing that such a body is needed to give credibility, as well as stability, to such an ambitious monitoring program, according to sources.
Linda Golodner, the co-chairwoman of the task force and president of the National Consumers Federation, said she was disappointed that Warnaco won’t sign on to the task force’s recommendations and questioned the decision.
“Right now consumers don’t have confidence goods aren’t made in sweatshops and that was the purpose of bringing us together in a partnership,” she said. Regardless of Wachner’s position, Golodner said she’s confident that the other task force company members that plan to back the panel’s recommendations — including Nike Inc., Reebok, Liz Claiborne, Tweeds, Patagonia, Nicole Miller, L.L. Bean and Phillips-Van Heusen — give the recommendations enough weight to propel them forward.
Indeed other panel members contacted Wednesday gave the recommendation a thumbs up and urged other companies to sign on. A spokesman for PVH called the blueprint “clearly a historic agreement.” Bud Konheim, president, Nicole Miller, said the recommendations help create “a level playing field where everyone raises their labor standards.”
Jack Robinson, director of production management at L.L. Bean, said, “The agreement we reached is very salable to the industry. That doesn’t mean it’s not a difficult program to implement.”
Roberta Karp, co-chairwoman of the task force and general counsel at Liz Claiborne Inc., said for many apparel companies, adopting the task force’s recommendations may seem like a “stretch,” but it’s not an impossibility. “There is a lot of flexibility built in,” she said.