LABOR SECRETARY PITCHES ANTI-SWEATSHOP PANEL
Byline: Joanna Ramey
WASHINGTON — Secretary of Labor Alexis Herman, joined by officials of investment firms, urged retailers and apparel and footwear makers Monday to join the White House anti-sweatshop task force.
Their pitch came at a news conference designed to give the task force a boost as it forges ahead with the mammoth presidential assignment of developing a global blueprint for monitoring apparel and footwear contractors.
The 23-member panel has eight companies represented. The other members are from labor, human rights and consumer groups, in addition to federal officials.
Although the task force has some heavy-hitters from industry — including Liz Claiborne, Nike, Reebok and L.L. Bean — its company members represent a small portion of the apparel and footwear sold in the U.S.
Herman said the task force, known as the Apparel Industry Partnership, needs more widespread support. Its critics, she said, need to follow the “roll-up-your-sleeves attitude” of existing panel members, who also include members of UNITE, the International Labor and Human Rights Fund, the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights and National Consumers League. The other company members are Philips-Van Heusen, Patagonia, Hanover Direct and Nicole Miller.
“The concept of the Partnership is the right concept. My emphasis is on broadening that partnership, getting others to participate,” Herman said.
This is the second time the Labor Department has called on investment firms to throw their support behind the anti-sweatshop movement. A year ago, Robert Reich, then Labor Secretary, held a similar news conference to point out that by investing in companies deemed to have socially responsible practices, investment firms can prod industry change in such matters as worker conditions and environmental concerns.
Attending Monday’s news conference were officials of Citizens Trust, The Calvert Group, Franklin Research & Development Corp. and the Social Investment Forum. They and other such firms endorsing the anti-sweatshop task force account for $639 billion in corporate investments.
The task force last spring unveiled an interim report, which included a code of conduct for factories, the first such document ever issued to target an entire industry. The panel also sketched its plans to create an association that would certify monitors who would keep tabs on conditions and worker rights in factories. Companies participating in the association, governed by industry, labor and human rights groups, would be able to advertise their pro-worker policies.
The interim report — viewed by the task force as a compromise between business and labor — immediately became the target of human rights groups that said the panel did not require companies to pay a wage high enough for workers to meet basic needs. The code calls for employers to pay at least the prevailing local minimum or industry wage, whichever is higher.
For their part, the nation’s department stores are wary of joining the task force, said Steve Pfister, vice president, legislative and political affairs, National Retail Federation. He said the panel’s plans are overly prescribed, particularly in its specifications for how and by whom factories must be monitored.
On another issue, Herman shared her views on recent industry criticism of the Smithsonian Institution’s planned exhibit on the evolution of garment sweatshops. Apparel makers and retailers say the exhibit dwells too much on the El Monte, Calif., sweatshop scandal and will leave visitors with the idea that much U.S. apparel is made under deplorable conditions.
“When you talk about the history of something like the garment industry in this country, clearly, El Monte was a part of that,” said Herman. “It’s like talking about the march on Washington and not talking about Birmingham.”