Byline: Joanna Ramey

WASHINGTON — Labor Secretary Robert Reich gave the OK Tuesday to place The Gap on the agency’s anti-sweatshop Trendsetter List, igniting another round in the debate as to the significance of the list.
While The Gap’s monitoring of its domestic contractors pleased the Labor Department, the chain’s ascension to Labor’s good-guy list had been delayed until the chain addressed union criticism over conditions at an El Salvador contractor. Although Labor’s anti-sweatshop campaign — and legal jurisdiction — is in the U.S., the controversy over worker treatment abroad at a Gap contractor “was an issue we really couldn’t ignore,” an agency spokesman said.
The Gap and the National Labor Committee Monday announced an agreement over the El Salvador factory, which includes hiring an independent third-party monitor for its offshore contractors.
“The Gap has a very sound program, which includes pre-screening, excellent education programs for employees and contractors, and on top of that, they do monitor their contractors,” the agency spokesman said.
The good-guys list was unveiled Dec. 5, and its total of 31 names was bolstered considerably by 14 subsidiaries of The Limited. The list has been severely criticized by the National Retail Federation, representing leading department and specialty stores.
Inclusion of The Gap, an NRF member, on Labor’s list is being viewed by agency officials as a victory of sorts for Reich’s plan.
“Clearly, part of the goal of the campaign is to raise awareness of the issue with the American public,” the spokesman said. “The Gap is a store that people strongly identify with. It has a high-profile presence across the country. It will help our efforts, and it will give credit where credit is due.”
NRF officials have repeatedly called the list meaningless. They also question the agency’s motives in singling out certain stores for praise, when the association says all retailers are concerned about combating sweatshops.
While saying the list isn’t a where-to-shop guide, Reich has said he would like to see the list tap into stores’ sense of competition and nudge them to require all U.S.-made apparel they sell be made by contractors that are monitored for Labor law compliance. Stores have argued that’s the job of manufacturers.
Steve Pfister, NRF’s director of political affairs, doesn’t view The Gap’s addition to the list as a coup for Labor, noting that the chain had already decided to undertake monitoring before the list was conceived this fall. The Gap began monitoring contractors about a year ago, after the agency found a contractor wasn’t paying workers according to federal wage guidelines.
“I wouldn’t say the list now has critical mass,” he said.
A Gap spokesman downplayed inclusion on the list. “We always have been open to human rights issues,” he said. “It’s good, for whatever reason, the Department of Labor put The Gap on the list.”
Nevertheless, the spokesman said Gap officials aren’t looking at the list as giving the chain a leg up on competitors and aren’t going to use it as a public relations tool. “That’s the last thing we’re interested in,” he said.
Charles Kernaghan, executive director of National Labor Committee, which led a national consumer campaign to convince The Gap to pay closer attention to its offshore contractors, said the chain’s attention to contractors abroad and in the U.S. sets a standard for its competitors.
Kernaghan said The Gap listened to what he said is growing consumer consciousness of conditions under which products are made.
“I’m not saying every consumer is a socially conscious consumer, but there are a lot out there,” he said. “I don’t think initially The Gap really understood the impact of our campaign in the U.S. and Canada with consumers.”
Regarding Reich’s list, Kernaghan said it’s too early to measure its impact.
“I don’t think anyone would say the list is perfect,” Kernaghan said. “What the secretary is doing is using his bully pulpit. What companies don’t want is for anyone to rock the boat. They’re used to doing things their way. That’s what’s beginning to break down.”
As an aside, although the federal government is officially shut down, cabinet member Reich is considered an essential employee and thus could weigh in on The Gap as a “trendsetter.” The official announcement of Gap’s inclusion is expected today.
— Fairchild News Service

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