ANTI-SWEATSHOP TASK FORCE REACHES AGREEMENT ON RECOMMENDATIONS
Byline: Joanna Ramey
WASHINGTON — The White House’s anti-sweatshop task force is in the process of polishing ground-breaking recommendations that it hopes it will be able to unveil soon in a public ceremony with the President, sources said Tuesday.
After eight months of wrangling, the panel — made up of industry, labor and human rights representatives — met here until late Monday night and agreed on a manufacturing code of conduct and a framework for monitoring apparel and footwear factories worldwide, sources said.
If management within the companies represented on the panel agrees to the task force’s recommendations, then these firms would become signatories to a blueprint on which manufacturers, and retailers acting as manufacturers, could sign.
The adoption of the recommendations would mark the first time an industrywide set of workplace standards has been forged in the United States.
The standards are intended to address concerns raised over several years by labor and human rights groups about conditions at factories in Third World countries.
But even if the recommendations are adopted, the task force, named by President Clinton in August as part of then-Secretary of Labor Robert Reich’s anti-sweatshop campaign, still has a lot of detail work and industry proselytizing ahead to get the program functioning.
Companies participating on the task force include Liz Claiborne, L.L. Bean, Patagonia, Warnaco, Phillips-Van Heusen, Nicole Miller, Tweeds, Nike and Reebok.
Most of the Third World factories that would be subject to the standards aren’t owned by the companies for which they produce, but reports of child labor, mistreatment and slave wages have put a variety of manufacturers and retailers — ranging from Wal-Mart Stores Inc. to Nike Inc. — on the defensive when they are publicized as doing business with suspect contractors.
Both camps on the 23-member task force — the apparel and footwear industry members and those who are representing labor and human rights groups — gave some ground to reach a consensus, sources said.
Labor and human rights officials reportedly were able to convince industry task force members of the need for panel recommendations to contain an external monitoring system for contractor factories.
These monitors — whose job it would be to verify that a company’s own internal monitoring system is functioning — would belong to nonprofit organizations.
Many industry panel participants had expressed concern about the accountability of these external monitors, sources said.
The non-industry task force members want the external monitors to be affiliated with religious, human rights and labor organizations.
However, sources said, the affiliations, as well as the criteria the actual outside monitors would follow, along with other details, now are to be ironed out in meetings of the task force during the next six months.
In addition to a framework for external monitoring, sources said, the recommendations spell out a company’s obligations for employing an internal monitoring program that would keep tabs on the conditions and wages at their factories and contractors hired to produce their goods.
Among the internal monitors’ obligations would be periodic visits and audits of manufacturing facilities and development of some way for employees to report workplace violations.
The workplace code of conduct, as well as the internal monitoring portion of the panel’s recommendations, is similar to those codes already adopted by many leading manufacturers and retailers over the last several years, sources noted.
The code bans forced and child labor, harassment or abuse and discrimination, and it requires companies to provide a healthy and safe work environment and acknowledge freedom of association and collective bargaining.
As far as wages, the code reportedly calls for employers to pay at least the prevailing local minimum or industry wage, whichever is higher, as well as legally mandated benefits and overtime.
In a nod to labor and human rights groups’ concerns that workers get paid enough to live on, sources said, the code also acknowledges that wages are needed to meet employees’ “basic needs.”
The issue of workers getting paid a “living wage” has been part of the wider anti-sweatshop campaign by labor and human rights activists and was discussed during the task force’s deliberations.
Still to be decided are crucial details concerning the makeup, responsibilities and funding of an association that would be created to oversee implementation of the ambitious monitoring program.
Establishing the association is considered key to making sure the panel’s recommendations are followed.
Furthermore, the association would fulfill the President’s mandate that the task force’s recommendations include some way for consumers to know whether they’re buying sweatshop-made apparel or footwear.
As part of the association’s proposed duties, consumers would be able to consult the body as to which companies are signed up for the anti-sweatshop program.
Rob Hall, vice president and international trade counsel with the National Retail Federation, said at first blush the panel’s recommendations appear well thought-out. “We always welcome progress in this area,” he said. However, it’s too early to say whether any of NRF’s members — most of the leading U.S. department and specialty stores — would sign up.
“I’m particularly glad to see the President’s task force has looked at internal monitoring. We firmly believe that internal monitoring programs, with adequate protections, can be successful in determining problems and eradicating them,” he said.
As far as the external monitoring recommendations, which retailers in the past have opposed, Hall said he would have to study the proposal.
“Most U.S. businesses would prefer to use internal monitors or accounting or audit firms,” he said.