ILO GATHERING ENDS WITH CALL FOR MORE EFFORT ON SWEATSHOPS
Byline: John Zaracostas
GENEVA — Winding up a week-long meeting here Friday, the International Labor Organization called for tougher measures to combat sweatshops, child labor and other abusive conditions in the textile, apparel and footwear industries.
Delegates from over 30 countries, representing employees and labor unions in the three industries, came to the meeting. Government officials were also in attendance. Saying that the “fight against clandestine work should be intensified,” the ILO resolution called on its 174 member countries to urge all employers, employer organizations, merchandisers and retailers to formulate policies and adopt voluntary guidelines to eliminate child labor. It called on the nations to ratify and fully implement the relevant UN and ILO conventions for the abolition of child and forced labor.
The ILO further said special attention should be paid to export processing zones, to make sure that they are linked to the rest of a country’s economy and that basic worker rights are respected.
The ILO also issued a new study spelling out how the shift in production of textiles, clothing, and footwear from industrialized to developing nations has resulted in large job losses and a downward push on wages and conditions in Europe and North America.
In the period from 1970 to 1990, the report says, the number of workers in these industries declined 31 percent in the U.S., 58 percent in Germany, and 49 percent in France.
But in the same period workers in the three industries grew 597 percent in Malaysia, 416 percent in Bangladesh, 385 percent in Sri Lanka, 344 percent in Indonesia, 271 percent in the Philippines and 137 percent in South Korea.
Taking another span of years, 1980 to 1993, the study puts the job loss at 30.1 percent in the U.S., while in China jobs gained 57.3 percent.
Entitled, “Globalization of the Footwear, Textiles and Clothing Industries,” the reports notes that average hourly costs (wages and social charges) in 1992 were $18.40 in Germany; $15.70 in Italy; $13.40 in France; $10.50 in Canada, and $10 in the U.S.
Meanwhile, in the same period the hourly rates stood at $1.70 in Mexico; $3.70 in Hong Kong; $3.80 in South Korea, and $4.20 in Taiwan.
The ILO survey concludes that as a result of fast-changing demand patterns, there has been a shift generally from “full-time in-plant jobs to part-time and temporary jobs…increasing recourse to home work and small shops.”
It adds that in the apparel industry “the number of clandestine workshops has grown exponentially in recent years. Few pay any respect to labor legislation and many hire illegal immigrants.”
The ILO estimates the total number of workers in the “formal” sector of these industries at around 23.6 million worldwide, but reckons the figure for those engaged in the same sectors in the underground economy may be five to 10 times higher.
However, the review further observes that the dismantling of market access barriers through bilateral and multilateral agreements, such as the phaseout of the Multi-Fiber Arrangement, is a plus for rich nations.
Such accords, argues the ILO, expand markets for lower-middle and low-income countries in the lower quality, mass production segments of those industries, and also enhance or create new markets for higher-income countries in the upper-quality/fashion segments.
Finally, the ILO report says that in the apparel sector, in spite of difficulties caused by competition from developing nations, Germany and the U.S. — and to a lesser extent France and Italy — “succeeded in increasing the value of their exports between 1986 and 1992.”