ANOTHER GROUP WITH ANOTHER PLAN
Byline: Joanna Ramey
WASHINGTON — As the White House anti-sweatshop task force wrangles over details of its global contractor monitoring plan, another group is poised to put its own plans into action.
The New York-based Council on Economic Priorities launched its effort about a year ago as part of its mission as a think tank studying policies and practices of U.S. corporations. Unlike the White House panel that’s concentrating just on the apparel and footwear industries, the CEP’s monitoring plan is intended for use by all manufacturers. It also calls for workers to be paid a living wage, which CEP has defined as pay “sufficient to meet basic needs of personnel and to provide some discretionary income.”
Like the task force, the panel created to develop CEP’s plan has members from corporations, labor and human rights groups. Four of the corporations, Avon Products Inc., Eileen Fisher, Reebok and Otto-Versand, the German catalog company that owns Spiegel and Eddie Bauer, sell apparel. Other corporate members are the Body Shop, Toys ‘R’ Us and the British supermarket conglomerate Sainsbury. Reebok is also represented on the White House task force.
CEP’s 20-member board has created a program in which factories and contractors become accredited as producing goods in a socially responsible manner. Manufacturers interested in being CEP-sanctioned then would only deal with accredited factories. The program is being reviewed and should be ready for presentation to industry at large “in a matter of months,” said Fitzroy J. Hilaire, director of supplier development at Avon and chairman of CEP’s Accreditation Agency Advisory Board, as the monitoring panel is called.
In contrast, the White House task force monitoring effort is designed from the top down in which manufacturers would be certified. Companies would gain a seal of approval when their contractors pass inspections conducted by approved monitors. The monitors would be checking contractors for adherence to a code of conduct drafted by the task force.
Under the CEP’s plan, factories would be inspected by one of several internal certification firms already in the business of auditing factories for good environmental practices and product quality against International Standards Organization guidelines. The CEP anti-sweatshop panel has created a similar set of guidelines governing worker rights and factory conditions. By using uniform workplace standards, CEP’s goal is to avoid confusion among contractors faced with meeting several sets of guidelines from their various customers.
Hilaire said developing the monitoring plan was somewhat problematic for the panel’s various factions and reaching a consensus on a living wage required some debate.
He said incorporating the principle of a living wage would be gradual. Factories first would be certified as paying at least the minimum wage. Later, the accreditation firm, working with local human rights and other groups in a given locale, would determine if the minimum wasn’t enough to meet workers’ basic needs.
“If the minimum wage alone were enforced that would be a dramatic force for change,” Hilaire said. He called determining a living wage taking a “realistic look” at a locale’s cost of living.
Human rights groups that have studied the CEP’s plan praise inclusion of the living wage, but say it gives too much power to corporations. They argue there’s no way to refute a certification firm’s findings and these firms would have a financial incentive to approve a bad contractor.
Hilaire said this argument is counterproductive, but he can understand why human rights groups are suspicious of companies, likening their struggle to the civil rights movement.
“The human rights groups are the catalyst for all of this. They are the voices in the wilderness who have been blowing their horns for a long time and who haven’t been listened to,” Hilaire said. “Our effort is coming from a position of advocacy. We see change that needs to made. A major corporation like Avon would not be involved in setting up a smokescreen. We have a reputation to maintain that goes back more than 100 years.”
CEP anti-sweatshop board member Jack Sheinkman, vice chairman, Amalgamated Bank, and former president of the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union, said the panel’s system is credible. He said bringing change to factories worldwide is a gradual process, particularly with the issue of living wages.
“It’s not insurmountable, it’s achievable. But it’s something that will be worked out over time,” he said. “You have to remember that with freedom of association, which is part of our criteria, if you have unions coming in, you have greater opportunities for a lot of people to attain the living wage.”