Albion Monitor /News
[Editor's note: See "New Sweatshop Panel Doesn't Please Everyone" in our previous issues for concerns that manufacturers can easily evade enforcement.]

"No Sweat" Pledges Not the Answer to Sweatshop Abuse

by Yvette Collymore

Will not protect the rights of all workers and will be difficult to enforce
(IPS) WASHINGTON -- The move by some manufacturer and consumer groups to develop special labels and codes of conduct for internationally-traded goods will not protect the rights of all workers and will be difficult to enforce, according to labor experts.

While these initiatives may be well-meaning, there remains no system to ensure that corporations which are fuelling the integration of the global economy respect international labor rights, says the Director-General of the International Labor Organization (ILO).

Michel Hansenne, the chief of the Geneva-based U.N. agency, is here promoting his proposal for a "global social label" to tag goods that meet core labor standards, including the abolition of forced and child labor, freedom of association, and collective bargaining.

While consistent with the ILO's own objectives, existing initiatives "raise a number of questions," according to Hansenne. "One wonders, for example, whether a system of self-enforcement can be said to offer all the guarantees that one would expect."

"The real challenge is not defining labor standards but how to enforce them"
For one thing, Hansenne told a Congressional forum earlier this month, the initiatives would likely protect only workers in export industries.

In many developing countries, the percentage of workers dealing with export goods is "very small," compared to that of workers in domestic production. "That's why we have to federate our efforts to make sure all workers are protected," he told U.S. government, business, and labor representatives at a public policy forum.

As grassroots campaigns focus attention on sweatshops, child labor, forced labor, and environmental accidents, corporations and citizens' groups are proposing their own labor and environment standards.

The issue has achieved some urgency as trans-boundary trade expands in an increasingly global economy. Without proper enforcement of ground rules, corporations, some of whose yearly sales figures greatly exceed the gross domestic products of many countries, will trample all over workers' rights and environment standards, analysts warn.

In one of the latest efforts to codify standards, a U.S. task force set up by the White House last year, following publicity about sweatshop conditions in apparel and footwear plants owned or contracted by major U.S. corporations, has produced a voluntary code of conduct to protect worker rights in these facilities.

When the accord between leading U.S. apparel makers and labor, human rights, and consumer groups was unveiled last month, President Bill Clinton said it promised to improve the lives of millions of garment workers around the world.

It requires that companies get on board to observe local minimum wage and child labor laws, and sets a work-week limit of 60 hours for employees. It also mandates the creation of a new association to implement the code and approve independent agencies to monitor compliance.

If companies are found to comply with the accord, they will be permitted by the association to attach a "No Sweat" label to their products. Some labor rights groups have denounced the accord as too weak, and some companies have reservations about the idea.

Clothing manufacturer Liz Claiborne says she supports the move, but many issues need to be worked out. For instance, "external monitoring also presents a serious challenge," says Roberta Schuhalter Karp, the company's vice president of corporate affairs. She says monitoring must be both "credible and economically feasible" for companies that adhere to its standards. "Otherwise businesses that comply will be at an economic disadvantage vis-a-vis their competitors that do not."

A study released by the U.S. Department of Labor late last year issued a warning against corporate codes of conduct, saying they cannot, by themselves, end the exploitation of child workers.

Codes of conduct have created a "potential downward trend in the use of children" in apparel manufacturing worldwide, but the codes are only as effective as the enforcement mechanisms, says the report, "The Apparel Industry and Codes of Conduct: A Solution to the International Labor Problem." Its findings were based on a survey of 45 U.S. importers, as well as on-site visits to 70 plants in six countries that make clothing for U.S. firms.

"Private industry now recognizes that it can take steps to make sure boys and girls are not robbed of their childhoods. But codes are not a panacea," U.S. Secretary of Labor Robert Reich said last October when the report was released. "No code is worth the paper it's printed on without strict enforcement of its requirements."

Labor activists say that corporations will not step up code enforcement unless consumers apply more pressure, because their executives are driven more by the fear of adverse publicity than by social consciousness.

"The real challenge is not defining labor standards but how to enforce them," says Jonathan Hiatt, general counsel of the major U.S. labor federation, the AFL-CIO.

The proposal for a global social label is to be formally put forward when the ILO's 174 member countries meet for their annual conference in June. The ministerial meeting of the World Trade Organization (WTO) in Singapore designated the ILO as "the competent body to deal with these issues." But the links made between trade and labor at that meeting caused divisions among countries.

The ILO's Hansenne says the system he is proposing would allow a country to apply an overall social label to all goods it produces, provided it accepts the obligations inherent in the ILO convention and agrees to have no-notice spot inspections by independent monitoring agencies.

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Albion Monitor May 18, 1997 (

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