INDUSTRY EXECS MULLING EFFECTS OF REICH’S EXIT
Byline: Joanna Ramey
WASHINGTON — Labor Secretary Robert Reich’s decision to resign from President Clinton’s cabinet also means there’s a vacancy for the job of chief crusader against garment sweatshops, a change that’s being weighed by apparel and retail officials.
Reich received praise and criticism from various sectors of the apparel industry.
“Reich was the spark plug behind the sweatshop issue. It was his baby, and his enthusiasm kept it on the front burner. With this personality gone, there has got to be some regrouping, and a change always hurts momentum,” said Bud Konheim, president of Nicole Miller and a supporter of Reich’s anti-sweatshop movement.
Roberta Karp, vice president, corporate affairs and general counsel at Liz Claiborne, gave Reich credit for bringing various sectors together to improve working conditions at sewing shops.
“The precedent set for labor/management cooperation in combating sweatshops offers his successor a promising path to advance this important goal,” Karp said.
Jay Mazur, president of UNITE, said in a statement that he’s convinced the anti-sweatshop campaign won’t miss a beat after Reich’s departure.
“His extraordinary efforts to end sweatshops in our country… was a model effort,” Mazur said.
Tracy Mullin, president of the National Retail Federation, which has undertaken its own anti-sweatshop programs but did not include Reich’s call for retailers to monitor their apparel contractors, said it’s unclear what effect the secretary’s departure will have on Labor’s anti-sweatshop crusade.
“Every cabinet officer tries to put his or her imprimatur on their department,” Mullin said.
Michael Gale, director of government relations, American Apparel Manufacturers Association, offered only criticism for Reich’s aggressive anti-sweatshop strategy that relied on publicizing names of apparel makers and retailers found to have used contractors that underpay their workers.
“Had he spent more time marshaling the resources of the federal government he probably would have made a bigger dent in the problem,” Gale said.
Reich, citing a desire to return to his family in Boston, announced Friday that he would be leaving his post after Clinton’s inauguration in January. A successor has not been named, but speculation on likely candidates has focused on Laura Tyson, head of the President’s National Economic Council, former Democratic Pennsylvania Senator Harris Wofford, White House public liaison director Alexis Herman and Labor’s Wage and Hour Division administrator Maria Echaveste, who has bird-dogged the sweatshop cause for Reich.
It’s been just more than a year since Reich decided to use his office as a bully pulpit to force domestic apparel makers and retailers to either monitor, or require the monitoring of, sewing contractors for labor law abuses. Reich seized the issue after the discovery of an El Monte, Calif., contractor that held 72 illegal immigrants in peonage to sew garments for brand-name firms.
While El Monte was considered an extreme example of conditions at the nation’s estimated 22,000 apparel contractors, Reich nonetheless saw it as an opportunity to underscore what was viewed in his agency as the common problem of sewing shops underpaying their workers. Labor enforcers had started targeting the industry during the last year of the Bush administration.
But Reich quickly claimed the issue as a Clinton initiative, became a student of the intricate business relationships between apparel makers, retailers and contractors, and launched a high-profile campaign. In repeated press conferences and meetings with industry he discussed what he called the garment “food chain” in which apparel makers and retailers demand low prices from their contract suppliers, who then underbid contracts and skimp on wages.
In a phone interview, Reich said he expects the momentum created by the agency in the anti-sweatshop campaign will continue unabated. “The President is absolutely committed to eliminating sweatshops from American soil,” he said.
In addition, campaigns poised to be launched by outside groups, such as religious organizations, socially responsible investment firms, unionists and consumer activists will also help to carry the anti-sweatshop message to consumers who will ultimately pressure apparel and retail companies, he said.
Otherwise, the actual changing of the guard at Labor won’t have any effect on the impact of the agency’s anti-sweatshop strategy, he said.
“Much of the work at the Labor Department has been institutionalized,” Reich said, citing the good-guy and bad-guy reports and lists the agency periodically issues of names of companies that deal with contractors found violating wage laws and those who use only monitored sewing shops.
“The next few years will be punctuated by scandals and exposAs and horrific examples of sweatshop abuses that will be traced directly to major retailers,” Reich said of pending bad publicity he forecasts will be unearthed by his agency, the media and activists.