CLINTON LEVELS HIS LAST ANTI-SWEATSHOP VOLLEY
Byline: Joanna Ramey
WASHINGTON — The last antisweatshop edict from the Clinton administration was issued Tuesday, and like other such mandates during the last eight years, controversy bubbled under the surface.
The event, held in a ceremonial room in the ornate Old Executive Office Building, at first blush, seemed more like a tribute to the outgoing administration’s dogged pursuit of sweatshops in the country and abroad.
Clinton’s top brass were on hand, including Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, Labor Secretary Alexis Herman, Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers and National Economic Adviser Gene Sperling. They praised each other for focusing attention on the issue and spending record federal funds to combat child labor and sweatshop conditions in apparel factories in the U.S. and abroad as well as in foreign factories producing handknotted rugs and soccer balls.
However, several representatives of apparel and textile organizations who were invited to the news conference declined to attend in protest of the unveiling of a U.S. Customs Service advisory that Summers lauded as “one more step in the enduring push against forced child labor.”
Customs officials said the 18-page alert is designed to keep companies from violating a new law banning the importation of goods made from child labor and an old law making it illegal to deal in goods produced by prison or indentured labor. The advisory lists “red flags” that signal likely violations at factories and “yellow flags” indicating the need for further investigation.
An example of a “red flag” is “evidence of physical or sexual abuse of child workers at the workplace” or “girls working without adult female presence or supervision where this is contrary to local custom.” One “yellow flag” is “work being performed during unusual hours, such as early morning or late at night or when a child could be expected to be in school.”
Julia Hughes, vice president of international trade at the U.S. Association of Importers of Textiles and Apparel, said, “No [USA-ITA] company would go to the news conference to endorse this” because of some of the details included in the advisory. While some specifics in the alert coincide with monitoring protocol employed by importers, others don’t, said Hughes, citing one red flag asking companies to assess the mental status of a child to determine if they are indentured.
“Obviously, no one wants children in their factories,” Hughes said. “But the advisory appears to be a semienforcement tool, that if you’re not looking for these flags it might be construed as some type of violation.”
Erik Autor, vice president and international trade counsel at the National Retail Federation, said the advisory appears to be an attempt to make importers “proxies” for government enforcement. Autor said the retail industry has been vigilant in keeping tabs on working conditions at factories and an NRF statement issued Tuesday said the advisory “may place requirements on U.S. importers that will be impossible to meet.”
Autor, who was attending the NRF annual convention in New York on Tuesday, said even if he were in town he wouldn’t have attended the antisweatshop event out of protest. He also said several retailers were invited to the news conference but he thinks they also chose not to attend.
The divide between industry and the Clinton administration over the Customs advisory is reminiscent of the controversy surrounding the White House antisweatshop task force created in the early Nineties to create a blueprint for global factory monitoring. Many apparel and retail companies eschewed joining the task force’s mandate considering it too prescriptive.
Eventually, the panel gave birth to the Fair Labor Association, which still only has 11 companies and an association of universities as members. As part of Tuesday’s event, Labor Secretary Herman announced the FLA would receive $750,000 in federal funds to create and maintain a list of independent factory monitors globally.
While apparel, textile and retail companies appear to have stayed away from the news conference, there was some industry presence. Mary Howell, director of the American Apparel and Footwear Association’s product divisions, called the advisory the administration’s attempt at carrying the antisweatshop initiative “a little bit farther.”
“They have had Customs advisories in the past,” Howell said.
Ann Hoffman, legislative director for apparel union UNITE, said she didn’t have a problem with the advisory. If companies did boycott the event, she said, “I think it reflects the lack of strong commitment they have had, for the most part, to eliminating child and sweatshop labor.”