CLINTON URGES INDUSTRY TO ENLIST IN THE WAR AGAINST SWEATSHOPS
WASHINGTON — President Clinton laid down a challenge Monday to officials of the U.S. apparel industry: Stick your neck out and back the efforts of his anti-sweatshop task force.
Clinton’s pitch came at the official unveiling of the task force’s blueprint for stomping out sweatshops worldwide. On a stage in the East Room of the White House, the President, flanked by task force members and the heads of companies that are represented on the panel, didn’t hesitate to call for new recruits. “If these people are willing to put their names, their necks, their reputations and their bottom lines on the bottom line of America, every other company in America in their line of work ought to be willing to do the very same,” Clinton said.
The 30-minute ceremony didn’t touch on the eight months of often contentious debate that begat the anti-sweatshop plan, a struggle that pitted labor and human rights groups against the industry on some issues. Instead, accolades for the 22-member panel and declarations of how business and human rights interests can work together were on tap.
“This partnership has reached an agreement that will significantly reduce the use of sweatshop labor over the long run. It will give American consumers greater confidence in the products they buy,” Clinton said.
“Of course the agreement is just the beginning. We know sweatshop labor will not vanish overnight. We know that while this agreement is a historic step, our real measure of progress must be in the changed and improved lives and livelihoods of apparel workers here at home and around the world. That is why we need more companies to join this crusade and follow its strict rules of conduct.”
In comments during and after the ceremony, Jay Mazur, president of the apparel and textile union UNITE, said the new recruits must include retailers that contract for production of apparel and footwear.
“Retailers are also manufacturers. Federated, Macy’s, May — every one of these companies do their own manufacturing, employing thousands of people around the world, and we are going to do everything we can to encourage their participation,” he said.
Not far from anyone’s mind at the White House was the fact that the agreement pounded out by the Apparel Industry Partnership, as the task force is known, is a work in progress. The plan is lacking many details about how it would function — the absence of which has raised a lot of questions among industry officials the panel hopes to recruit.
“There are skeptics,” said Paul Charron, chief executive officer of Liz Claiborne Inc., in comments preceding Clinton’s. Claiborne’s general counsel and vice president of corporate affairs, Roberta Karp, is the co-chair of the task force.
“Some maintain companies are taking an unnecessary risk. They ask, ‘How can we afford to make this commitment?’ I would ask them in return, ‘How can you afford not to?’ Ensuring human rights is the right thing to do; it is also the smart thing to do because good working conditions are productive conditions.”
Maria Echaveste, White House director of public liaison, called the anti-sweatshop proposal “a high bar” to reach. “None of this is very easy,” said Echaveste, who previously was wage-and-hour administrator under former Labor Secretary Robert Reich, who moved the administration’s sweatshop crusade into high gear.
The task force plans to meet for another six months to flesh out their plan for forming an association, to which manufacturers — as well as retailers operating as manufacturers — would belong. In joining the association, companies would agree to follow a nine-point code of conduct and require contractors producing for them to do the same. Companies would also employ an internal monitoring system to check on adherence to the code and agree to have outside monitors associated with nonprofit groups like human rights organizations do their own inspections to verify all is aboveboard.
While the task force has agreed on terms for the code of conduct and many details for undertaking internal and external monitoring, still on the table is who would get to do external monitoring and how the association would function, as well as its responsibilities. The association and external monitoring are considered to be the most contentious issues still facing the task force.
The pledge to create an association and require outsiders to keep tabs on a company’s adherence to the code of conduct was enough for one corporate member of the task force, Warnaco Group, to bow out of its participation on the panel. As reported, Warnaco ceo Linda Wachner said her company, producing in 15 countries, already has an extensive internal monitoring system and pays an auditing firm as an outside monitor. She sees no benefit in Warnaco joining a monitoring association and questions how nonprofit groups could be counted on for confidentiality in serving as outside monitors.
Paul Fireman, ceo of Reebok International, whose company belongs to the task force and who attended the White House ceremony, questioned Wachner’s decision.
“There’s no reason not to sign on,” he said. “The fact is, by signing on, we can make the world a better place without really a lot of cost or effort on our part. In the corporate world, it’s long overdue.”
Charron, at a news conference following the ceremony, said he doesn’t view Warnaco’s withdrawal from the task force as affecting the group’s ability to bring in industry support.
“If one company comes in, or one company comes out, it doesn’t undermine what we’ve accomplished here,” he said. “The Warnaco Group was an influential part of the discussions over the last few months, and on the last few days, for reasons I don’t fully understand, they decided there were some aspects of the final agreement that didn’t meet their needs.”
Talk show host Kathie Lee Gifford, also attending the ceremony as a task force member, said she’s conveyed the panel’s work to Wal-Mart Stores, which carries her apparel line. She said she didn’t know if Wal-Mart officials will sign on to the anti-sweatshop blueprint, but that she would consider pulling her line of clothes if they don’t.
“They have been extremely supportive of my independent monitoring and have assured me that they will do everything they can to change their ways of internal monitoring,” said Gifford, who got caught up in a sweatshop scandal last year. She now pays for an auditing firm to keep tabs on factories producing her garments. Wal-Mart officials could not be reached for comment.
In a statement, Nike chairman and ceo Philip Knight, who also attended the White House ceremony, said that while there is “no such thing as a perfect factory,” the task force’s plans for external monitoring will improve conditions.
Since sweatshops became an issue for business to contend with six years ago, most brand-name apparel companies and retailers have adopted codes of conduct and have some form of internal monitoring. Companies and associations contacted about the task force’s sweatshop blueprint cited these efforts as being sufficient, but that they would be open to weighing the panel’s proposals.
“We’re still confident that what we have in place has worked for us in a very successful way,” said a spokesman for Levi Strauss & Co., noting that officials haven’t ruled out signing on to the panel’s blueprint. “We want to give it thoughtful consideration. It’s something we certainly have not closed the door to. We certainly share the ultimate objective of the task force.”
In August, Levi Strauss officials, among those at numerous other apparel companies, turned down an invitation to be on the task force, citing opposition to an early goal of the White House to have the panel create a “no-sweatshop” labeling program. The right to the label would have been given companies adhering to an internal and external monitoring program.
Human rights and labor officials on the task force have continued to push a labeling initiative, sources say, although many industry members have fought the idea. While the panel wants the association to create a means by which consumers will know what companies are monitoring, industry members contend a labeling program would be unwieldy to police and keep other companies from signing on.
A spokeswoman for the American Apparel Manufacturers Association objected to the task force’s proposals for involving human rights groups in external monitoring.
“We feel strongly that if there is an external monitor, it should be done by an accounting firm or professional association who would keep their fiduciary responsibilities,” she said. Otherwise, signing up with the task force would be redundant for most AAMA members, she said. “Why should companies that are already doing the right thing feel compelled to prove this?”
It also remains to be seen how retailers will respond to Clinton’s call for new recruits. Robert Hall, vice president and international trade counsel, National Retail Federation, said stores largely view their role as merchants, not manufacturers, even when it comes to private label apparel. This argument has been the mantra of stores in the sweatshop debate, with officials maintaining that fixing sweatshops is largely the job of manufacturers.
“As retailers, we have our own codes of conduct to follow when choosing manufacturers. We clearly prefer companies to have their own internal audit programs and checkpoints,” Hall said, while not ruling out retailer participation with the task force. “It’s too early to tell whether companies would back this. We obviously have to study it further.”
Robin Lanier, vice president, international trade, International Mass Retail Association, said the biggest question mass merchants have wrangled over when looking into anti-sweatshop protections is the role of external monitors.
“There is reason for caution here, because there are so many details lacking by the task force,” she said.
Among other task force members were L.L. Bean, Patagonia, Phillips-Van Heusen, Nicole Miller, Tweeds, Business for Social Responsibility and the National Consumers League.
The 9-Point Code of Conduct
WASHINGTON — The nine-point code of conduct put together by the President’s anti-sweatshop task force:
Bans forced labor.
Bans harassment or abuse.
Requires companies to provide a healthy and safe work environment.
Requires companies to acknowledge freedom of association and collective bargaining.
Calls for employers to pay at least the prevailing local minimum or industry wage, whichever is higher, as well as legally mandated benefits and to recognize wages are “essential to meeting employees’ basic needs.”
Requires companies to base overtime compensation on a rate equal to the regular hourly compensation, unless a country legally requires a premium rate be paid.
Limits the work week to 60 hours, with no more than 12 hours of overtime, except in “extraordinary circumstances” when employees are required to work longer to catch up on backlogged orders or the like.
Bans child labor, which it defines as workers under the age of 15, although in countries where it’s legal, workers can be 14.