To End Sweatshops

Designing A Code of Conduct for a Global Industry

By Robert A. Senser

An article published in Commonweal Magazine

In its 1997 world survey, Human Rights Watch indicts Western democracies for abandoning their human rights commitments in favor of trade and investment opportunities in countries like China, Indonesia, Mexico, Nigeria, and Saudi Arabia. But there is a bright spot, an emerging countervailing trend. As the organization's 1997 report puts it, the global economy is creating "new and immediate connections among distant people," and is thereby spawning "a surprising new source of support for the human rights cause" among ordinary citizens in the United States, Canada, and Europe.

The report pinpoints the motives behind this growing popular support:

"Because the goods purchased in one country may be produced by victims of repression in another, the very act of consumption can be seen as complicity in that repression--unless steps are taken to ensure that manufacturing is free of labor rights abuse." To avoid that personal complicity, many consumers "are insisting on guarantees that they are not buying the products of abusive labor conditions." In other words, they don't want to be a party to subsidizing sweatshops.

How to provide reliable guides against such complicity? It's far from easy. In the early 1990s Levi Strauss, Reebok, and a few large importers of garments and other goods developed codes of labor practices for their contractor firms, almost all located overseas. Some other multinationals followed, each with its own emphasis in listing abusive practices that it would not tolerate.

In an article on Levi Strauss' code, which was the most thorough at the time, a Business Week headline (8/1/94) asked: "Is Levi Strauss' approach visionary--or flaky?" Its flakiness was beyond question in the mind of David L. Lindauer, professor of economics at Wellesley College and a World Bank consultant. He called sweatshop conditions such as child labor normal in early stages of economic development, and advised against any kind of intervention, even by voluntary codes of conduct (Harvard Business Review, January-February 1993). But the media intervened in its own way, peeking into distant factories, and bringing shocking scenes of human exploitation into Western living rooms. Even some name brand companies with codes of conduct found themselves the subject of labor horror stories on national TV. Pressures mounted to such a point in 1996 that then Secretary of Labor Robert Reich persuaded President Clinton to appoint a task force--formally called a "Partnership"--of leaders from business, labor, human rights, religious, and consumer organizations to look at sweatshop problems that centered on the apparel industry.

AT A WHITE HOUSE ceremony on April 14, Clinton gave his quasi-official seal of approval to the Partnership's seven-page action report, the result of seven months of negotiations. The centerpiece is a code of conduct designed to eradicate sweatshop conditions in apparel workplaces producing for the U.S. market. The code blends together elements of existing individual codes--no employment of children under 14, a maximum workweek of 60 hours, a ban on harassment and abuse, no forced labor, and so on--and outlines a voluntary, two-tiered monitoring system, one performed by companies, the other by independent external monitors. The Partnership agreement, Clinton said, "will significantly reduce the use of sweatshop labor over the long run. It will give American consumers greater confidence in what they buy."

Seven U.S. activists with first-hand knowledge of sweatshop labor overseas reacted negatively: they issued a joint press release denouncing the agreement as flawed. Others who are just as concerned about the problem called it a historic "breakthrough." Both assessments, positive and negative, are correct.

On the positive side: Nike, Reebok, Liz Claiborne, L.L. Bean, Patagonia, Nicole Miller, and other leaders of the industry (really a group of overlapping industries) have publicly signed on to a document in which they

No other significant group of leaders of a global industry has made such a commitment. Thus, the decision announced at the White House on April 14 is indeed historic. As one participant, union leader Jay Mazur, pointed out, it is a "first step," one as advanced as possible at the present time. It won editorial praise from both the New York Times and the Washington Post.

Yet what good will the agreement do where it counts: in the lives of the millions of women, children, and men who make the shirts, dresses, pyjamas, shoes, and other things we wear? In the opinion of some who know the historic habits of this industry first-hand, codes of conduct are often just a fig leaf for doing business as usual. Indeed--let's be realistic-- the Partnership agreement could turn out as nothing more than a PR shot in the arm for the various brand names represented at the April 14 ceremony.

A FACT OF LIFE not mentioned in the agreement is that most of the workers in export- oriented factories in Asia and Latin America are young women. To these female workers, this code provision is especially meaningful: "No employee shall be subject to any physical, sexual, psychological, or verbal harassment or abuse." Such abuse by supervisors and managers is shockingly widespread and takes many forms. In a incident on March 14 in Vietnam, for example, 56 women who had not worn the proper shoes to work were forced to run around their Nike factory again and again until 12 of them collapsed under a hot sun and were taken to a hospital emergency room. Though Nike claims that such episodes are isolated, they at the very least indicate a need for proper training.

A new study by Peter Hancock, a researcher at the Center for Development Studies at Edith Cowan University in Australia, also illustrates that need. He found that, at a Nike plant in rural Indonesia, supervisors get special instruction in how to discipline women workers. The skills include use of abusive language such as "Move, you stupid bitch" and "Fuck you." Unfortunately, the White House agreement requires training on the code's standards only for code monitors, who will necessarily be few in number, not for managers and supervisors, the individuals most directly responsible for implementing the code.

Physical and psychological violence, and the threat of such violence, requires priority attention not just because of the wrongs done to individuals (though that is reason enough for action) but because of its use as a management tool to instill fear into the whole work force and thus keep it in tight control. It is a basic weapon to inhibit worker demands for the "decent and humane working conditions" laid down in the new code.

In its language about unions, the industry agreement is more specific than are most of the already existing individual codes. "Employers shall recognize and respect the right of employees to freedom of association and collective bargaining," it declares. Further, it urges companies to "consult periodically with legally constituted unions representing employees at the work site regarding the monitoring process."

But there is far less here than the wording suggests. Most of the industry's production is concentrated in China, Vietnam, Indonesia, and other countries in which the government systematically represses the twin right to organize and to bargain. By firing or otherwise punishing union members, a management on its own can ordinarily crush any employee initiative to unionize, but if the "troublemakers" become too numerous, the government can usually be counted on to apply force from the police and even the military. In such countries, the advice about consulting "legally constituted unions" is empty, since such organizations are controlled either by the government or management, or both. Even using the term "collective bargaining" can bring harsh reprisals in China. A Beijing factory worker named Zhou Guoqiang prepared a T-shirt with the Chinese lettering for collective bargaining, and was secretly sentenced to three years in a labor camp on a charge of printing T-shirts with "slogans calculated to incite."

The wide range of such human rights violations in China led to Levi Strauss's 1993 decision to phase out its operations in the People's Republic. "I can't figure it out," a reporter in Hong Kong was told by a Nike executive wondering why Levi Strauss would abandon such a large market. The Wall Street Journal article (May 5, 1993) that reported the decision and industry reactions was headlined: "Levi Strauss, Leaving China, Passes Crowd of Firms Going the Other Way."

The attraction behind this mass movement, which has accelerated since 1993, is multifaceted. Low wages form one of China's attractions, as in other countries where the apparel industry farms out its production. The new code does not diminish that attraction, since instead of calling for a living wage, it settles for respecting the "minimum wage required by local law," which is uniformly low and, even then, often unenforced in China and elsewhere.

But the attraction is not limited to low wages. Another is the freedom to impose long working hours. The code sets a 60-hour week maximum and adds an escape clause: permission for still longer hours "in extraordinary business circumstances." Ironically, 60 hours is higher than the legal maximums set in China and in some other countries, but no matter: the countries' statutory requirements are seldom enforced. Also, "extraordinary business circumstances" occur often enough to justify extraordinarily long working hours, sometimes 24 hours or more straight through.

Another attraction is that factory health and safety regulations are weak and almost never enforced, despite sky-high death and injury rates in China and other "miracle" economies. In one disaster publicized within China in early 1996, at least two women workers died, and more than 30 were stricken with leukemia and anemia, by inhaling toxic fumes from benzene and other chemicals in poorly ventilated foreign-owned shoe factories in the coastal province of Fujian. ("Lambs led to slaughter," a woman's magazine in Beijing reported in its expose.) The new code's call for a "safe and healthy working environment," if implemented, could be of great help to China's shoe workers, who include 230,000 women in Fujian alone. But the code has no implementation deadlines, and so Gerard Greenfield of the Asian Monitor Resource Center, a fact-finding non- governmental group in Hong Kong, asks:

"How long will it take to stop benzene poisoning? A year? By that time there will be permanent damage to the women who work with it at least 60 hours a week."

THE BRUTAL TRUTH is that change will not come quickly. The present system of exploiting the most vulnerable workers is widely dispersed and deep rooted; it is protected by the self interest of elites accruing incredible economic and political benefits from it, and bolstered by rationalizations often similar to those that perpetuated slavery and racial segregation. Although the Partnership agreement may produce some early improvements here and there, it is limited to one industry headquartered in one country, and even within that industry some big players have yet to join. The hold-outs will ponder questions such as: "What about Canadian, European, and Japanese companies? What will they do?" Even with the best of intentions and diligence, reform of sweatshops will be piece-meal if industries in other countries fail to get religion.

The global dimension of this problem makes it very easy to shrug off personal responsibility. It is a long way between the foreign workplaces making (say) sport shoes and the stores selling them. Across these two points stretches a complex series of relationships--among contractors, subcontractors, local governments, Asian conglomerates, U.S. corporate headquarters, bankers, boards of directors, stockholders, buyers for retail stores, and many other intermediaries--each with priorities that crowd out concern for those making the shoes. As sovereigns, governments like China's should of course be responsible for enforcing their own laws, but when they show signs of doing so, they hear business threats to move elsewhere.

Still, it need not be so. Despite a long chain of relationships, traversing many borders and vast seas, people in the industry do somehow manage to work together to assure the quality of shoes. Couldn't they also work together to assure the quality of life of shoe workers?

A strong Yes assumption underpins the work, present and future, of the Apparel Industry Partnership. For that it deserves encouragement from all sides. The next six months are crucial. During that time the Partnership is to set up a permanent association to carry out its work. It must decide exactly how to label products made in compliance with the new code. It must bring into its ranks the many U.S. firms still on the outside. It must at the same time actively encourage similar partnerships in kindred industries in Canada, Europe, and Japan; otherwise its work will not be sustainable over the long run.

The U.S. government has an indispensable role--giving the Partnership the same imaginative support provided last year under the leadership of Secretary of Labor Reich. His successor, Alexis M. Herman, has made a public commitment to do so. In a May 30 address at Marymount University, she said: "We must relegate sweatshops to the history books." That in no way diminishes the need for consumers and worker-rights advocates to maintain pressure on all who share complicity in repression. ##

(The above article appeared in the July 18, 1997, issue of Commonweal magazine. Commonweal has a Web site at, where subscriptions can be ordered.)

Robert A. Senser
Editor, Human Rights for Workers
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