MONITORS CALLED KEY TO TRACKING GLOBAL ILLS
Byline: Arthur Friedman
NEW YORK — Independent monitoring of foreign contractors was cited at the morning session of an all-day conference here Friday as the only way to insure compliance with international labor and human rights standards.
Members of some 50 labor, human rights, religious and civic groups got together at the Queens College Worker Extension Center at 25 West 43rd Street to discuss the need for independent monitoring as a global vehicle to implement and enforce corporate codes of conduct.
Charles Kernaghan, executive director of the National Labor Committee, said that in the two years since the NLC and others began publicizing sweatshop abuses, he has witnessed “an enormous decency” among U.S. and Canadian citizens.
“They don’t want to wear clothes made under inhumane conditions,” Kernaghan told the more than 100 people in attendance.
Elaine Bernard, director of Harvard University’s Trade Union Program, said, “It’s important to make sure independent monitoring isn’t co-opted.” Bernard said there are several steps that should be taken to keep monitoring independent.
First, the monitors must be free from corporate or government interference and have open access to the workplace. Monitoring should be institutionalized and indigenous, which Bernard said is crucial to gaining the trust of workers. The monitoring organization should also have a track record both in the community and within the industry, she noted.
Finally, the independent monitor “must be transparent,” Bernard added, and be able to communicate with management and labor, as well as the press and public.
Much time was spent talking about what Kernaghan said was the first independent monitoring program in Latin America. It resulted from a campaign organized by the NLC and UNITE against Gap for first using a factory in El Salvador where labor abuses were found, then pulling out of the factory instead of fixing the problems. The NLC is supported by UNITE and other human rights, religious and civic groups.
In March 1996, Gap agreed to an independent monitoring of Mandarin, the contractor that was the target of the protests. The monitor was set up by the NLC and is made up of human rights, labor and religious organizations.
Kernaghan said such a consortium offers more independence in monitoring manufacturing than corporate investigation firms hired by many companies to police themselves.
“We complement each other in terms of our different knowledge and expertise,” said Mark Anner, a board member of the Center for Labor Research, which is part of the independent monitor of Mandarin. “We are in the factory at least once a week and meet with management at least once every two weeks. We not only gather information, we present the problems and suggest solutions. We believe we can monitor at least four other factories if allowed.”
Anner explained that the rise of maquila or free-trade-zone factories in El Salvador came after the 1992 peace accords there.
“We’ve had an explosion of foreign investment and an explosion of labor rights abuses,” Anner said. “Since government wanted to attract the foreign investment, it was reluctant to enforce our own labor laws.”
Dr. Benjamin Cuellar, director of the human rights department of UCA University in El Salvador and one of the monitors, said he hopes the independent monitor program can be an example for other factory-monitoring programs. He also feels it can be a model of how “true peace might be constructed through participation and justice” in El Salvador.
“The maquilas should be a great place of employment, not a source of slavery,” Cuellar said through an interpreter. “We want businesses to succeed, but we want them to follow labor laws.”
Susan Cowell, vice president of UNITE, said the sweatshop problem is the result of manufacturers’ desire to make a profit from their contracting, instead of considering it an operating expense.
“Ever since the Gap campaign, our thrust has been to change the way the small group of large marketing companies operates,” Cowell said.
Richard Dicker, associate counsel of Human Rights Watch, said the advent of corporate codes of conduct, developed to alter the industry’s tarnished image from a series of headline-grabbing sweatshop incidents, was good, “but what was missing was accountability.”
“That has to be built into the system and can only come from independent monitoring,” Dicker said.
Stan Gacek, assistant counsel in the international affairs department of the AFL-CIO, compared independent monitoring to an independent counsel.
“When the government decides there’s a need to investigate itself, they don’t appoint an internal or external counsel, they appoint an independent counsel,” Gacek said. “Independent monitoring is good for the workers and for the companies. I challenge the large multinational: Dare to be great by daring to be virtuous by supporting and agreeing to independent monitoring.”
William Gould, legislative director for Rep. Bernie Sanders (D., Vt.), echoed the sentiment, asserting that companies can “make good on the bottom line and do good at the same time.” He cited Gap and its landmark agreement.
He said Sanders and other legislators were crafting a bill that would give preference to companies that institute and enforce codes of conduct when it was time to consider the $250 million in government contracts awarded each year. The bill would include an annual review process and allow for cancellation of contracts for labor and human rights abuses.