Anti-Sweatshop Movement - A Comparative Look: FLA vs. WRC

In August, 1996, the Clinton administration established The White House Apparel Industry Partnership(AIP), a task force supposedly created as a reflection of the one-year anniversary of the El Monte sweatshop raid in California. However, the creation of the AIP had more to do with several high-profile human rights campaigns in 1995 and 1996 against the practices of The GAP in El Salvador and the making of Kathie Lee Gifford apparel in Hondoras and Nike products in Indonesia. By mid-1996, the apparel industry had lost much credibility in the eyes of the public and fear over their ability to control legislation and advance the free trade agenda prompted industry and the Clinton administration to form a corporate dominated body - the AIP.

In November, 1998, the task force, without the support of the AFL/CIO and the Interfaith Center for Corporate Responsibility, created a system of monitoring and minimum standards to assure consumers that the apparel they buy is not made in sweatshops - the Fair Labor Association (FLA). Despite inadequate standards and monitoring, companies will be able to use their participation in the FLA as a marketing tool. Once certified, these companies will be able to sew a label into their products and state that they were made under fair conditions--a label we feel will fool consumers and will amount to false advertising.

Why did the FLA solicit the participation of universities? Legitimacy and Funding. Over this past year, as more than a hundred schools were signing on to the FLA, students across the country began mobilizing support for an alternative system. At several campuses, students organized sit-ins, held public debates and demonstrations, brought sweatshop workers from Latin America to speak on their campuses, and waged campaigns to encourage their administrations to adopt stronger codes of conduct and licensing agreements. As a direct result of student activism, corporations like Nike and Champion have begun disclosing the locations of their factories.

The Workers' Rights Consortium (WRC) was developed by the United Students Against Sweatshops in consultation with workers and human rights groups and has begun the process of obtaining 503(c) status as a non-profit organization. (See below for advisory council members and endorsing groups.) The WRC is an effort to collaborate with workers, non-governmental organizations, and other colleges and universities to improve the conditions of workers producing collegiate apparel, using the leverage of licensing agreements. The code of conduct developed by the WRC is not required to join, but it is recommended. A school's code must contain language that includes provisions for a living wage, the right to organize, the protection of women's rights, public disclosure, and independent monitoring. To date, 35 campuses have signed on to the WRC and more than a dozen have pledged to consider joining this Spring.

We believe that core global standards are vital in order to prevent the 'race to the bottom' that we have seen as countries compete for investment by allowing abusive conditions to flourish. We believe that the value of what we do is not just to improve conditions for the people that make clothing for the small college market, but also to set an example for the apparel industry and for the world leaders that basic labor rights can and must be enforced.

FLA Problems and WRC Solutions

A careful reading of the standards and means of enforcement indicate that the Fair Labor Association (FLA) is seriously flawed in several key areas:

(1) Wages: Its standards are too weak to guarantee real improvement in workers' lives. The FLA allows workers to be paid below poverty wages by supporting minimum wages deliberately set below subsistence to attract foreign investment. The FLA doesn't acknowledge the responsibility of companies to pay a living wage to factory workers. The FLA only calls for companies to pay the local minimum wage or the prevailing industry wage, both of which are usually inadequate. Recognizing its failure to adequately address wages, the FLA has committed the Department of Labor to undertake a study of wages and basic needs data. However, the Department of Labor will only use publicly available data instead of doing original studies in countries that are major producers for US companies. The problems with compiling only existing data are that there will not be a full data set that covers all producing countries and the data will come from different sources collected using different methods and will therefore be inconsistent. The Department of Labor should do original studies with uniform methods that would gather data in an unbiased way. However, even if the Department of Labor's limited study were to produce useful information, the FLA has made no agreement to use the data to devise new wage standards. In fact, the FLA's position reflects the companies' arguments that a living wage is impossible to define and should therefore be off the agenda.

The WRC challenges this notion that a living wage is impossible to define and supports a living wage and defines it as that which is the 'take home' or 'net' wage, earned during a work week of no more than 48 hours, that provides for the basic needs (housing, energy, nutrition, clothing, health care, education, potable water, child care, transportation, and an additional 10% for savings/emergencies) of an average family unit divided by the average number of adult wage earners. Preliminary results of studies conduct by non-governmental organizations such as Global Exchange and the National Labor Committee show the living wage to be about double the minimum or prevailing industry wages. While this might sound like a lot, the wages are presently so low that in most countries, doubling them would still result in labor costs significantly less than 10 percent of the retail price.

WRC members pledge to sponsor institutionally funded research to determine living wage requirements. Joining WRC does not require the immediate enforcement of a living wage, but rather a commitment to fully participate in studies such as the Living Wage Coalition formed out of the recent Living Wage Symposium held at the University of Wisconsin-Madison this past year. The studies will take place in the most-used apparel production regions, as determined by forthcoming disclosure lists from the schools involved and the regional living wage will be calculated by local market-basket research and in conjunction with workers. At present, Todd Whitmore, an administrator from Notre Dame is heading up the formation of a governing board for this coalition. Once a living wage has been more thoroughly studied and there is general agreement about the best way to calculate a living wage, WRC will require its members to implement a living wage in its code of conduct.

(2) Overtime: The FLA allows excessive hours of overtime by accepting a 60 hour work week (48 hours with 12 hours overtime) as the norm. Compensation for overtime in the FLA's Code is inadequate. It calls for employers to compensate workers at the legal rate, or where none exists, at a rate at least equal to their regular hourly compensation. Labor unions all over the world call for overtime to be paid at a higher rate than the regular hourly wage in order to force employers to respect legally determined limits on hours. The WRC calls for at least time-and-a-half pay for overtime.

(3) Right to Organize: The FLA does not adequately uphold the right of workers to organize unions. 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 fired or in some instances killed. Although the code states that "the goals of the association is to promote and encourage positive change...," there are no specific standards for countries where these rights are denied. There is no prohibition against using the local military to keep "order" in the factory and put down strikes, only a recommendation that companies should only contract with factory owners who will not "affirmatively seek the assistance of state authorities to prevent workers from exercising these rights."

The WRC asserts that even in countries where the laws and juridical practices fail to guarantee these rights, companies must try to achieve worker representation in their particular factories and must work with the broader labor and human rights community to help create more space for workers' rights. To verify this, the WRC requires independent monitoring in ALL factories--not just a small sample--in countries where the laws prohibit workers from organizing independent unions.

(4) Independent Monitoring: The FLA's monitoring system is not transparent nor sufficiently independent of the companies to be credible. It requires only 10 percent of a company's factories to be monitored yearly and the companies can choose their own monitors resulting in undue influence in which factories will be monitored. Given that the companies will know the list of the factories to be monitored, it is logical to assume that they will notify the factory owners. According to OSHA (the Occupational Safety and Health Administration) standards, the FLA procedures for selecting plants and monitors would be completely unacceptable for any company inside the U.S. and should therefore be unacceptable for US-based companies operating overseas. FLA monitoring contradicts the fundamental basis of monitoring by OSHA, which is unannounced visits conducted by experts who are not working directly for the companies.

The WRC calls for annual independent monitoring in at least 30 percent of factories, as well as independent monitoring in ALL factories in countries where basic workers' rights are denied. The list of factories to be monitored are determined by the local human rights, labor or religious groups, who have the trust of the workers and knowledge of local conditions, not by the companies. True independent monitoring is only possible with full pubic disclosure.

(5) Public Disclosure: The FLA does not require full public disclosure and those factories that are disclosed are not released to the public. If workers and their advocates knew this information, in cases where local managers are being abusive, they could register complaints directly with the buyers. Moreover, given that independent monitoring will only take place in a minority of a company's factories per year, disclosure of all factory sites could open up the system to receive more input on the status of the non-monitored factories. Companies argue that information about what factories they use is proprietary, that having high quality factories and keeping this information from their competitors is important for maintaining their competitive advantage. This argument is bogus as often times competing shoe and apparel companies produce their goods in the same factories as their competitors; and most of the information of who is producing what and where is already well known within the industry itself.

The WRC requires licensees to make public the names and locations of all factories making the university's products. The failure to report or reporting of false information will be grounds for sanctions up to termination of the licensing agreement.

(6) Women's Rights: The FLA does not provide specific language in regards to women's rights, such as prohibiting pregnancy tests, mandatory contraception, and denial of maternity benefits. In El Salvador alone, the eighth largest apparel exporter to the U.S., 80 percent of the 70,000 workers are young women. The WRC supports women's rights and states that women will receive equal remuneration, including benefits and treatment.

Why not remain on the FLA and join the WRC?

The FLA's code and governing body is seriously flawed. As long as FLA standards fail to seriously address wages and the right to organize, no company or university should be permitted to promote their apparel as having been made under fair conditions. By remaining on the FLA, the universities are lending legitimacy to an institution which gives cover to sweatshop abuse. Universities remaining on the FLA will lose autonomy over their licensing contracts and end up obligated to corporate interests. Participating universities have only one out of more than a dozen votes on the FLA Board and will have no chance in improving this code.

By joining the WRC, universities can take an opportunity to join students, workers and religious leaders to support a real anti-sweatshop effort and develop a system that will reflect their interests rather than just the corporate interests embodied in the FLA.



-Boston College and the Movement
-Collegiate Apparel Research Initiative (CARI) in Indonesia
-A Comparative Look: FLA vs. WRC




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