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A significant step in fight against sweatshops

In human rights circles, the story of exploited labor, particularly child labor, was, sadly, a well-known tale. It was one of those nagging woes of the world about which, it seemed, little could be done.

Sweatshops are an awful injustice, but one normally removed from the daily experience of most U.S. consumers. And the clothes and sneakers they produced were cheap.

But in the mid-90s, the news began to break through. A child rug maker in India was shot and killed. The clothing lines endorsed by high profile U.S. celebrities, it became known, were the work of child slaves and oppressed adults who labored in horrible conditions.

Suddenly there was a groundswell of concern and activism to augment the documentation by human rights groups. Sometimes right-minded and organized human concern can make a difference.

Earlier this month an array of interests first organized under the Apparel Industry Partnership, a group initiated by the White House in August 1996, announced the formation of a Fair Labor Association, a nonprofit outfit intended to put teeth into the concern about sweatshops.

The Fair Labor Association will administer a workplace code of conduct designed to assure that products are not manufactured under sweatshop conditions.

The code itself was worked out by representatives of the apparel and footwear industries, human rights groups, labor, religious organizations, university interests and consumer advocates. (For details, see the Web site of the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights: www.lchr.org/sweatshop/faq.htm)

In the face of galloping globalization the initiative, though not perfect, is a welcome balance to the unconscionable extremes of human abuse that we now know occur without oversight. It is a first attempt, agreed to by powerful components of the apparel industry, to hold clothing and footwear companies accountable for the conduct of their subcontractors around the world.

To assure compliance, the Fair Labor Association’s code establishes workplace standards, training programs for company monitors, provides for periodic visits and audits to ensure compliance and provides factory workers with confidential reporting mechanisms.

The monitoring also will include periodic announced and unannounced visits and audits; conducting confidential employee interviews; and communicating the results of the monitoring in annual public reports on each company.

One element of the new plan will allow colleges and universities, concerned with the conditions under which items bearing their logos are manufactured, to affiliate with the Fair Labor Association.

A downside to the initiative is the lack of a living wage provision in the original agreement. The U.S. Department of Labor, as part of the Apparel Industry Partnership, will do a six-month “study of the relationship between wages and basic needs of workers” around the world.

Ultimately, consideration of wages will give the whole effort validity. It will also, presumably, be the most difficult element to tie down.

In the meantime, we can only commend the governmental agencies, business interests and human rights groups for the diligent work that has brought the process this far.

National Catholic Reporter, April 2, 1999