WASHINGTON — Facing his critics, Labor Secretary Robert Reich says complaints from apparel retailers and manufacturers about the agency’s anti-sweatshop Trendsetter List signals that the industries actually care about the honor roll.
“A significant part of the criticism has come from retailers and manufacturers who are miffed they aren’t on it. To me, that’s a clear indication the list is being taken seriously,” Reich said in an interview, which amounted to a postmortem of the list released Dec. 5 as part of the agency’s sweatshop crackdown.
The tally of 31 companies, 14 of which are divisions of The Limited, was designed to single out companies that sell or make apparel sewn by contractors that are monitored for labor law compliance. Labor officials, while not characterizing the list as a where-to-shop guide, want the list to educate consumers about sweatshops so they will demand sweatshop-free garments from retailers who aren’t on the list.
In addition to newspaper accounts he’s read about complaints of being excluded from the list, Reich said he has received two telephone calls from executives, after the list’s release, about why their firms weren’t named.
“Two months ago most of the retailers were saying, ‘This isn’t our responsibility,’ and now they are beginning to take some action,” Reich said. “I hope and expect the Trendsetter List will be expanded and major retailers and major manufacturers will be more engaged in policing.”
The impact of the list remains to be seen, he said.
“It’s too early to tell. At a minimum it has raised awareness throughout the industry,” Reich said. “Beyond that we’ll have to wait and see. I simply don’t know.”
He added: “This is an intensely competitive industry. Even if only a few consumers use the information, it could have an impact and encourage other retailers and manufacturers.”
As for enforcement, invoking the hot goods provision of the Fair Labor Standards Act remains an integral part of the agency’s crackdown on contractors who underpay or otherwise mistreat their workers, Reich said. The provision allows Labor officials to stop shipments of apparel made in sweatshops.
And, as he’s said in the past, the agency will continue to publicize names of manufacturers and retailers found on invoices at sweatshops. Reich noted, however, that publicizing names will be saved for “egregious” situations like the infamous El Monte, Calif., sweatshop unearthed Aug. 2, which sparked the secretary’s stepped-up interest in the issue.
In addition, manufacturers and retailers with monitoring programs, whose contractors are found to be in violation of Labor laws, will be given special consideration before their names are released, he said.
“It’s a combination of carrots and sticks,” Reich said. “We are going to hold out carrots — rewards for cooperation. But we’re also going to continue to come down hard on unscrupulous contractors and manufacturers, and even retailers, when there has been what appears to be a complete abdication of responsibility, where manufacturers or retailers are turning their backs on egregious circumstances.”
Several leading department stores, like Federated Department Stores and J.C. Penney, along with the lobbying arm of the industry, the National Retail Federation, continue to eschew the monitoring requirement needed to ascend to the Trendsetter List. While some companies do monitor, opponents of the list say monitoring is impractical for most of the industry and, regardless, argue it’s the manufacturers’ job to police contractors’ working conditions.
Saying “there’s no magic bullet” to bring sweatshops into line, Reich characterized the list as just part of his agency’s ongoing effort, which he said remains dependent on industry participation. As he did when releasing it, Reich praised the NRF’s anti-sweatshop guidelines signed by more than 100 stores, criteria that exclude monitoring.
Regarding criticism from the NRF and other retailers over Reich’s call for monitoring, the secretary said he and the industry were not at an impasse.
“It’s not a standoff at all,” Reich said, striking a conciliatory tone. “Several ceos have contacted me personally over the past two weeks to talk privately. I’m very positive about the direction we’re going. Over the last three months we’ve made enormous progress.” — Fairchild News Service

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