Associated Press
15 June 1999

Limited Steps To Curtail Sweatshops
by Sally Buzbee, Associated Press Writer

WASHINGTON (AP) - Nearly three years after Kathie Lee Gifford, Nike Inc. and others suffered image nightmares with stories that their clothes were made in Third World sweatshops, a White House-orchestrated effort to improve worker conditions is still on the drawing board.

Nevertheless, companies like Nike have improved workers' health and safety, in part by keeping more children out of plants, switching to less toxic glues in shoe factories and allowing activists to see conditions.

One monitor who returned to a Vietnamese factory making Nike products found "significant improvements around health and safety issues," said Medea Benjamin, spokeswoman for a San Francisco-labor rights group, Global Exchange. A Reebok International effort to keep Pakistani children from stitching soccer balls for pennies has become a model.

Yet, human rights groups caution it's much harder to take the next step and wipe out widespread abusive child labor as President Clinton will propose in a speech Wednesday before the International Labor Organization, an arm of the United Nations. The group will approve a new standard against child labor abuses but has no enforcement powers.

Critics say the Clinton administration should make such protections part of free-trade deals.

Over the weekend, the president ordered federal agencies to list products suspected of being made by forced child labor. He also required federal contractors to certify no abusive child labor went into goods they buy. The administration has already identified problem industries, including carpets and bricks from India and Pakistan, fishing platforms from Indonesia and fireworks from Guatemala. During his time in the White House, Clinton has had close ties to unions.

Overseas factories drew Americans' attention after activists revealed that clothing sold in Wal-Mart under Gifford's name was produced in a Honduran sweatshop. The Vietnamese factory making Nike products was accused of mistreating workers and having dangerous levels of chemicals.

After many false starts, a group of manufacturers convened by the White House in 1996 to address such abuses now hopes to have independent monitors in place by this winter, said Justine Nolan of the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights.

So far, only eight companies - a fraction of those making clothing overseas - are participating. Participants include Nike, Reebok, Liz Claiborne, Patagonia and Gifford - and organizers say they hope others will soon join. Also participating are four human rights groups and 83 universities whose students have sought to prevent sweatshop labor to make clothes bearing school logos.

Companies that join the group - the Fair Labor Association - agree to monitor all factories where they contract to make clothes. They also agree to allow independent monitors accredited by the FLA, with results made public. In turn, they will be allowed to note their efforts to prevent sweatshop labor - perhaps with "No Sweat" tags.

Some human rights groups and unions call the agreement too weak - specifically complaining it doesn't guarantee overseas workers a "living wage."

"The problem we have is that some of the companies we deal with think the standards are already too strong," Nolan said.

Meanwhile, a handful of companies have pressed forward on their own. Nike uses an accounting firm to monitor each factory, inviting local monitors along in some places. It says workers must be 16-years-old in clothing factories and 18 in shoe factories, and has begun some in-factory schools.

Reebok encourages workers to file confidential complaints against managers, either by phone or in suggestion boxes or prepaid mailing envelopes. It also has paid for a U.S. union's overseas arm to give Indonesian workers information about their right to form independent trade unions.

Nevertheless, Benjamin's group still receives reports of workers forced to pay for "free" schools, or given safety masks only on days when inspectors are due.

"Is it perfect? No," says Maria Eitel, Nike's vice president for corporate responsibility. "But I think we're developing a strong system."

A tougher challenge is ending the use of child labor used to make products not sold to American shoppers, but within a country or to its neighbors, said Doug Cahn, vice president of Reebok's human rights program.

In 1997, Reebok began trying to prevent Pakistani children from stitching soccer balls - in part, by bringing workers to factories rather than sending balls to homes, and by starting a free school. Nevertheless, an estimated 6 million children still work in Pakistan in other industries.

"There have to be alternatives for families that may have been depending on that income," Cahn said. "Getting rid of child labor is not an easy, simple thing."

Copyright Associated Press 1999

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