Albion Monitor /News
[Editor's note: See "Santa's Little Sweatshop" for a multi-part series on the problem of sweatshops used by companies like Nike and Disney.]

New Sweatshop Panel Doesn't Please Everyone

by Farhan Haq

(IPS) NEW YORK -- After months of haggling, a special White House task force on sweatshops, combining business and labor groups, is set to deliver recommendations on working conditions abroad, but some groups are already unhappy with its proposals.

The White House task force has drawn plaudits from some groups, who are cheered that the coalition -- including such major garment firms as Nike, Reebok, L.L. Bean and Liz Claiborne -- has called for an overseas code of conduct for all U.S. firms and a maximum 60-hour work week. President Bill Clinton unveiled the agreement last week in Washington, accompanied by several key business and union leaders.

"The benefit for everyone is what the whole task force was about: to make sure consumers can purchase goods that have not been made in a sweatshop and make sure that there's a process in place to check that factories are not sweatshops," Linda Golodner, president of the National Consumers Federation and co-chair of the task force, told reporters.

"The companies have agreed to the fact that they can't be trusted," Kernaghan says
But critics argue that the recommendations will not provide a living wage to workers who assemble U.S. apparel abroad, nor will it provide adequately independent monitoring to ensure that the agreement's provisions will be met.

"I'm not very hopeful," says Jeff Ballinger, director of the New Jersey-based pro-labor group Press for Change. "They may come out with a label that guarantees 'no sweatshop conditions,' but for now, they can't even guarantee they will pay a living wage (to apparel workers abroad)."

"At first, I was pretty disappointed," concedes Charles Kernaghan, director of the National Labor Committee, a New York group which monitors overseas apparel plants in Central America and the Caribbean. "I thought we were stabbed in the back...but the more I think about it, the more I think this deal is an enormous breakthrough."

For all its flaws, Kernaghan argues, the agreement establishes one basic principle: that U.S. firms will require outside monitoring of their labor conditions abroad, because they cannot ensure that their various codes of conduct will be respected.

"The companies have agreed to the fact that they can't be trusted," Kernaghan says.

Nevertheless, the agreement's language, according to some of the people who worked on the task force, still leaves much to be desired in ensuring better working conditions abroad.

According to participants in the task force, who say they could not publicly comment on the group's work, the corporate representatives and labor groups on the force were bitterly divided on issues of wages and workers' rights. One source says that, as recently as last week, the nearly 20 groups involved in the task force were "struggling to come up with a joint report."

But in the end, most of the issues that business most adamantly opposed -- such as a "living wage" for workers, or a firm cap on weekly working hours -- were resolved on terms favoring the corporations' views.

For example, businesses insisted that the agrement state that companies pay overseas workers at least the national minimum wage. Labor groups like the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees (UNITE) countered that in countries like Haiti the government-mandated minimum is too low. But labor demands for a "living wage" sufficient to meet workers' basic needs were in the end dropped, replaced by language that asks companies to link wages to "the basic needs of workers."

The agreement also forbids child labor in most factories, but the age limit for workers varies from a minimum of 14 years in some countries to 15 in others.

Similarly, after much heated debate, the agreement states that U.S. firms should not make overseas workers put in more than 60 hours of labor every week -- a maximum of 48 regular working hours and 12 overtime hours. But the language provides an exception if workers "voluntarily" agree to work longer than 60 hours in any given week.

"How can you say anything's really voluntary?" complains Ballinger. "Most of these countries are repressive, where companies can make workers agree to whatever they want."

Companies can still wriggle out by appointing ineffective but technically independent monitors
More satisfying to pro-labor groups is the creation of a code of a conduct for all U.S. firms working overseas, which states that "no employees shall be subject to any physical, sexual, psychological, or verbal harassment or abuse." The code of conduct is to be monitored by independent, non-governmental groups. Businesses preferred to use accounting firms, while labor wants to rely on indigenous, human rights, and religious monitors.

"The code of conduct that addresses the worst abuses in the industry and the monitoring system that incorporates local human rights and religious organizations are essential for any program confronting the global epidemic of sweatshops and its attendant evils," says Jay Mazur, president of UNITE.

"But we still have a long way to go, particularly regarding the question of the type of information that will be made available to the consumer and the transparency of the system," he adds.

Kernaghan contends that companies can still wriggle out of their commitments by appointing ineffective but technically independent monitors, while adhering to the sort of wages and working conditions that have sparked the recent concern about sweatshop labor.

But he adds that pressure from U.S. consumers and human rights groups can ensure that the agreement will be used not simply as a public relations device but as the basis for real improvements abroad. "If we let them get away with this language and then implement no real changes...I would say it's our fault," he says.

The Clinton administration could share some of the blame if the agreement fails to lead to changes, Ballinger says. "This administration has done nothing for workers," he argues. The agreement, he adds, "gives them the appearance of fighting the good fight" without actually taking on governments or businesses who abuse workers' rights or prohibit labor organizing abroad.

But UNITE and other groups gave the Clinton administration high marks for its efforts to secure a deal. One clear sign that the administration's efforts did not please all the corporations came over the past week when one of the firms involved in the task force, Warnaco, dropped out of the agreement, Kernaghan adds.

Warnaco did not comment on its decision.

In any case, most of the details of the agreement -- such as who finances overseas monitoring, and what kind of labels should identify "non-sweatshop" apparel -- remain to be determined. "I think this is an opening," Kernaghan says. "This agreement raises the stakes and clarifies the issues, and now the real struggle begins."

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Albion Monitor April 20, 1997 (

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