April 30, 1997 in City

Window Dressing Won’t End Abuses

Medea Benjamin Special To The Los Angeles Times
 
Tags:column

With much fanfare at a Rose Garden ceremony, President Clinton announced that a coalition of industry, human rights and labor groups had reached a breakthrough agreement to end sweatshops. Saying that the lives of factory workers are as important as the fabric they make, President Clinton called the agreement a historic step that will “give American consumers greater confidence in the products they buy.” Companies that voluntarily adhere to this new code will be able to tag their products “sweatshop free.”

But before consumers go on a guilt-free shopping spree, they should take a moment to look at some of the details of this agreement.

Companies shall pay the prevailing minimum wage or industry wage.

Companies are flocking to countries that deliberately set the minimum wage below subsistence to attract foreign investment. In Vietnam, Nike pays 20 cents an hour; in Haiti, Disney pays 30 cents an hour. These wages, while the legal minimum, are not enough to buy three decent meals a day, let alone pay for transportation, housing, clothing and health care. U.S. companies should pay wages that allow workers to live healthy, dignified lives. They should swiftly and publicly commit to paying at least double the legal minimum in their overseas factories. And they should agree to pay restitution to workers cheated out of past wages.

Except in extraordinary business circumstances, employees shall not be required to work more than 60 hours a week.

In addition to accepting a 60-hour week as the norm - which in itself is outrageous - the agreement provides no guidelines on what constitutes “extraordinary circumstances.” Moreover, it only addresses “mandatory” overtime. Already, apparel factory workers put in endless hours of “voluntary” overtime. There should be no mandatory overtime and if workers were paid a living wage for an eight-hour day, excessive “voluntary” overtime would cease.

Employees shall be compensated for overtime hours at the legal rate, or where none exists, at a rate at least equal to their regular hourly compensation rate.

Labor unions the world over call for overtime to be paid at a higher rate than the regular hourly wage. The agreement should call for at least time-and-a-half pay for overtime.

Employers shall recognize and respect the right of employees to freedom of association and collective bargaining.

Recognition of these rights is certainly a positive step. Unfortunately, many U.S. companies choose to work in countries or free-trade zones where independent organizing is illegal and where workers who stand up for their rights are severely repressed. To give this recognition of workers’ rights meaning, U.S. companies must pressure local governments to allow workers the freedom to organize, call for the release of all those jailed for their organizing efforts and require companies to rehire in their own factories workers who have been fired for organizing.

Companies shall utilize independent external monitors to ensure that the (agreement) is implemented.

The agreement does not insist that companies use local human rights, labor or religious groups that have the trust of the workers and knowledge of local conditions. Instead, the companies can use private accounting firms and merely “consult regularly” with these local institutions. It is extremely unlikely that employees working under repressive conditions would speak openly to representatives of accounting firms. Meaningful monitoring must be conducted by respected not-for-profit entities.

According to this agreement, companies could still pay their workers 20 cents an hour, coerce them into countless hours of “voluntary overtime,” use accounting firms that have no connection to workers as their external monitors and be rewarded for this behavior with a “no sweatshop” seal of approval.

The results of this task force’s eight-month process demonstrate all too clearly that we cannot leave the fate of the world’s apparel workers in the hands of presidential commissions. To really put an end to sweatshops, we must continue to mobilize public opinion, support struggling factory workers and pressure abusive corporations until workers at home and abroad are paid living wages and treated with dignity.

xxxx


Thoughts and opinions on this story? Click here to comment >>

Get stories like this in a free daily email