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Phony Sweatshop Reform Plan

by Alexander Cockburn

on Apparel Industry Partnership
A little more than two years ago, Bill Clinton and Nike CEO Phil Knight embraced each other in a Rose Garden ceremony celebrating the creation of the Apparel Industry Partnership. Both men proclaimed that the new partnership would swiftly bring the sweatshop controversy to a close with a program of rigorous monitoring of factory conditions and child labor practices. Companies abiding by a "code of conduct" would be rewarded with a "No Sweat" label that they could stamp on their products to pacify the concerns of their consumers, whose agitation over the issue had begun to dent the bottom line of companies such as Nike.

After two years of internal squabbles, defections and debate, the partnership's plan has finally been completed. The details were released on Nov. 2, Election Eve, a well-chosen moment if publicity for the plan was deemed to be undesirable. And indeed there were several reasons for this stealth approach. First, the atmosphere of objectivity and bipartisanship heralded by Clinton had long since been shattered by the defections of labor and church groups, leaving the partnership dominated by sweatshop moguls. Second, the report, which calls for the creation of a Fair Labor Association, doesn't survive serious scrutiny.

The partnership chose to ignore the thorniest issue, namely the need for companies to pay factory workers a living wage. This decision prompted the labor rep on the panel, UNITE, and its largest church group, Interfaith Council on Corporate Responsibility, to quit the partnership in fury.

"How can they say it's humane treatment to pay Indonesian workers 10 cents an hour, when it takes at least 20 cents an hour in income just to pay for the basic necessities of life, food, shelter, clothing and medicine," says Medea Benjamin, director of the San Francisco-based Global Exchange.

Defenders of the plan argue that the Apparel Industry Partnership should not address "living wage" demands on the grounds that this is too huge an issue. But if not now, when; if not here, where? Sweatshops by definition deny workers a living wage, so any reform plan or partnership worth the name must press the issue.

Similarly, the touchy subject of whether factory workers would have the right to organize was dealt with only in passing. According to the plan, members of the partnership have generously agreed to "not affirmatively seek the assistance of state authorities to prevent workers from exercising these rights." In other words, you can't be too loud in your request that the Indonesian military massacre your striking workers if you want that "No Sweat" label.

The companies themselves get off cheap. It will cost a maximum of $100,000 to join the Fair Labor Association, roughly what Nike pays Michael Jordan every day. Moreover, they get the Fair Labor Association to pony up the cost of the inspections of their factories. And how is the new association going to be funded? Through government grants and contributions from private foundations.

Inspections of the factories don't look to be particularly onerous endeavors. For starters, only 5 percent of the factories will be visited, and to help companies prepare for these inspections, they will be given plenty of advance warning. There will be no surprise visits. Nor will the inspectors be strangers. In most cases, the companies will be able to select their own. And, even more satisfactory to corporate executives, the companies will be able to recommend which factories the inspectors will visit.

When the inspectors submit their report, it doesn't go to the partnership until after the company has had a chance to review it for at least 60 days. Then, in order to protect corporate secrets, the public is provided only with a highly censored version of the report. Then, it seems that the public will be permitted to learn only good news about the company. By contrast, if a factory is found to be abusing the "code of conduct," the companies can rest assured that "the public will not be informed of the determination."

Even more generously, the partnership decided that a company can be granted the coveted "No Sweat" label for a particular brand even if 95 percent of its other products are manufactured under the most cruel sweatshop conditions.

The final document was largely drafted by lawyers for Nike and by Michael Posner, director of the New York-based Lawyers' Committee on Human Rights. If this sounds like a struggle between natural adversaries, think again. An examination of the board and executive committee members of the Lawyers' Committee scarcely discloses it as a mighty foe of corporate power. Instead, the committee's board is freighted with representatives from the nation's biggest corporate law firms. The Lawyer's Committee also invited onto its advisory councils executives from several companies that employ sweatshop labor.

A plan to attack sweatshops is always to be welcomed. But it must also scrutinized carefully. In its present form, and with its present protocols, the Apparel Industry Partnership's plan is a recipe for business as usual.

© Creators Syndicate

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Albion Monitor November 23, 1998 (

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