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"No Sweatshop" Campaign Heats up

NOTE: Yes Burma is -noted- in this article.

Labor-U.S.: "No Sweatshop" Campaign Heats up

            Inter Press Service

            WASHINGTON, (Nov. 17) IPS - Labor unions and activists
            say that the White House accord between U.S. apparel and
            footwear companies and human-rights groups to monitor
            working conditions in foreign plants will not eliminate

            Two unions have refused to endorse the Nov. 3 agreement
            which, among other provisions, creates an independent "Fair
            Labor Association" (FLA) to accredit the monitoring firms
            will inspect and report on conditions in plants owned or
            contracted by the companies. 

            The National Labor Committee (NLC), an activist group
            which almost singlehandedly propelled the apparel
            companies' use of sweatshops onto the national public
            agenda three years ago, also denounced the accord, which
            has been signed by several major U.S. human rights groups.

            "It's completely unacceptable," NLC director Charles
            Kernaghan told a news conference today. "I think it's dead
            the water." 

            He drew attention to new reports of abuses in Central
            American plants which produced clothing for Nike and Liz
            Claiborne, both signers of the White House agreement, as
            well as other big U.S. brands. 

            The 33-page accord, announced here Nov. 3, was the
            product of two years of White House-sponsored negotiations
            by a core group of three human rights organizations -- the
            Lawyers Committee for Human Rights, the Robert F.
            Kennedy Center for Human Rights, and the International
            Labor Rights Fund. 

            Also involved in the negotiations were the National
            Consumers League and five business representatives,
            including Nike, Reebok, and Liz Claiborne. 

            Labor unions, a number of other companies, and the
            church-backed Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility
            (ICCR) also were involved in the talks. While several of the
            companies have since pledged to participate in the plan, the
            labor unions -- including the Retail, Wholesale and
            Department Store Union, and the Union of Needletrades,
            Industrial and Textile Employees (UNITE) -- and the ICCR
            said they cannot endorse it at this time. 

            The task force, known formally as the White House Apparel
            Industry Partnership, agreed last year on a basic code of
            conduct for U.S. apparel firms and their overseas
            contractors. This included such provisions as a maximum
            work week of 60 hours and a minimum working age of 15
            unless local laws allowed 14-year-olds to work. 

            Under the Nov. 3 accord, the FLA's ruling body would
            consist of an equal number of company delegates and
            representatives of labor, consumer, human rights, church
            and other public-interest groups. It also provided for a
            system of both internal and external monitoring of overseas
            plants by FLA-approved independent auditors to monitor
            compliance with the code. 

            The accord required that 30 percent of the plants used by
            each participating company would be subject to external
            monitoring in the first two years. Thereafter, auditors
            inspect between five and 15 percent of such factories each
            year. Third parties, including local human rights groups and
            labor activists, would also be able to bring possible code
            violations to the FLA and its monitors at any time. 

            The agreement required companies to pay the legal
            minimum wage or the prevailing industry wage where the
            factories were located, whichever was higher. 

            The labor unions and ICCR assailed the agreement on
            several grounds. Most important, they said was that the
            apparel companies and their overseas contractors should be
            required to pay a "living wage" that satisfied workers'
            needs. They also expressed reservations about the
            independence and rigor of the monitoring regime. 

            "This agreement would set up a monitoring norm where only
            ten percent of a company supplier factories would be
            independently monitored each year," said Ruth Rosenbaum,
            an ICCR official. "In addition, we are concerned that large
            auditing firms will become the Association's 'independent
            monitors,' marginalizing participation by non-governmental
            organizations (NGOs) who know the local context and are
            more likely to have the trust of the workers." 

            Kernaghan echoed these remarks: "We don't think it's gone
            nearly far enough; it doesn't deal with the issue of a
            wage, which we find completely unacceptable," he said. 

            The human rights groups that signed the accord agreed it
            contained some weaknesses but also insisted that it was
            widely misunderstood. "No one sees it as something than
            can work on its own," said RFK Center director James Silk,
            who stressed that it was one more tool by which the NLC
            and the unions could hold companies accountable. 

            Kernaghan, whose grassroots network is considering
            launching a consumer's boycott of at least one major
            company accused of worker abuse, said that all companies
            should be required to release the names and addresses of
            all their supplying plants so that the public and local
            groups can focus attention on them. 

            He also charged today that, despite a 1997 Clinton-imposed
            ban on new U.S. investment in Burma to protest human
            rights and labor abuses, apparel companies were importing
            more goods from there than ever before -- more than $110
            million worth for 1998. 

            "Evidently, this is the kind of climate the companies
            he said, noting that Burmese garment workers were paid
            only eight dollars a month. 

            He said workers in El Salvador and Honduras at plants used
            by Nike and Liz Claiborne continued to suffer serious
            abuses, including forced overtime, pregnancy tests, and
            poor health and sanitary conditions and were being paid a
            basic wage of only 60 U.S. cents an hour -- roughly half of

            "The women in El Salvador earn just 84 cents for every $194
            Liz Claiborne jacket they sew," he said. "Could Liz
            and its contractor in El Salvador afford to pay a living
            Very easily." 

            For its part, Nike said it was investigating the reports of
            abuse at the Formosa factory in El Salvador and considers
            Kernaghan charges "important, but misdirected...A better
            target for criticism would be the hundreds of companies who
            have yet to become party to the Apparel Industry Partnership
            and the requirements it imposes on global apparel
            manufacturing," the company said.