HONG KONG — China’s textile and apparel industry has an image problem that it wants to fix.
The image — and often the reality — is of garment factories with rows of young women bent over sewing machines, as well as long hours, low pay, child labor and poor working conditions.
Even as textile and apparel manufacturing in China soars, the China National Textile and Apparel Council is trying to establish a framework to compel businesses to abide by international social compliance standards and existing Chinese laws.
Applying the standards may come at an initial cost to manufacturers, but it will help the morale of factory workers and increase productivity, said Lucy Lu, deputy director for the Office for Promoting Social Responsibility in China, which is part of CNTAC. Factories also may get an edge in luring business from Western companies that require contractors to adhere to specified guidelines.
“We have to start from the basics,” Lu said. China needs to “tell the world that social responsibility isn’t just something the multinationals care about, it’s something we want to do ourselves.”
CNTAC is a national federation of textile-related industries that works to modernize the sector. It has a voluntary membership of textile-related organizations, while its senior officials are appointed by the government.
Lu said the framework of principles and guidelines — technically known as CSC9000T and released in May by CNTAC — is about good business management.
Until now, the government’s emphasis has been on creating jobs to promote social stability, Lu said. But as companies look to China for quality goods at difficult-to-beat prices, the next step is to improve management practices and protect the legal rights and interests of employees.
Labor laws are already on the books in China. With a lack of education and lax enforcement, however, they have been largely ineffective.
The laws are “idealistic” and modeled for a developed market, said Patrick Fu, executive director of Linmark Group Ltd., a sourcing firm based in Hong Kong. Linmark and China Textile Information Center, a division of the textiles and apparel council, formed a China-registered joint venture in March to help promote the concept of social compliance through training and consulting.
The guidelines define social responsibility this way: “Apart from earning profit for its owner(s), a business enterprise shall also integrate concerns of all stakeholders in the business decisions. Employees are the main stakeholders for the concept of social responsibility.”
They outline these areas: how to set up a management system, employment contracts, child workers, forced or compulsory labor, working hours, wages and welfare, trade unions and collective bargaining, discrimination, harassment and abuse and occupational health and safety.
The starting point is to protect the legal rights of workers, who are mainly migrants and women, Lu said. Motivating employees and increasing their skills will make them more apt to stay with a company and increase production, she said.
Some Chinese factories say that a 50 percent annual turnover rate for personnel is considered good, and 100 percent yearly turnover isn’t rare.
The textile and apparel industry in China is “still on the side road,” Lu said, adding that the guidelines and principles can take the industry to a path of sustainable development and eventually help ease trade conflicts.
In addition to social compliance, challenges include incorporating more design, research and development and marketing. China also has to “put energy into the protection for intellectual property,” Lu said.
She anticipates it may be 10 years before social compliance guidelines are adhered to across the board.
On the education front, Lu has talked with two universities in China — Dong Hua University (formerly China Textile University) and Beijing University — about implementing social compliance courses into postgraduate programs. Linmark will sponsor a course at Beijing University starting next year, Linmark Group’s Fu said.
So far, 170 Chinese suppliers — mills and factories — have agreed to follow the 10 principles and guidelines outlined in the initiative.
Lu is recruiting brands and buyers who work with China to become partners in the program.
Participation is voluntary and adherence to the principles and guidelines will be tracked through progress reports compiled by an as-yet-unchosen independent, third-party company.
In the past month, Lu traveled to Europe, where she met with representatives of the World Federation of Sporting Goods Industry and Free Trade Association, as well as with European Union officials in Brussels. In Hong Kong, she met with representatives of Walt Disney, Gap, Nike and other firms.
“It is regarded as a positive sign that Chinese industry is now dealing with [social compliance] issues proactively,” she said.