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Are 'sweatless' sweatshops a pipe dream?
Roberta Rosenfield WellsApril 20, 1997, Sunday
THE catch phrase of the month is "No Sweat" - as in no sweatshops.
Much has been made of the accord by 10 major clothing manufacturers and labor advocates aimed at eliminating sweatshops worldwide. Apparel industry heavy hitters such as Nike, Reebok, Liz Claiborne, L.L. Bean, Nicole Miller and our much-maligned Kathie Lee Gifford agreed with human-rights advocates, labor leaders and the National Consumer's League to the most stringent code of conduct to date.
This voluntary code limits the work week, mandates payment of at least that country's minimum wage, prohibits verbal and physical harassment of workers, permits workers to organize and provides for outside monitoring of the factories.
Does this mean that soon we can relax our diligence when purchasing apparel tagged with the proposed "No Sweat" labels? Read my lips: No way.
Aside from great PR for the clothing makers - some of whom, like Nike, have been the most flagrant abusers - there are ambiguities enough to satisfy any Scroogelike CEO. Let's take a closer look.
Workers must be at least 14 years of age. That's clear enough. But how closely will it be scrutinized? Desperately poor families will likely do what they can to get around this, and it will be easy for companies to nod and wink.
Forced overtime may be forbidden, but there is no limit to the hours a worker can "volunteer." Are these people really in a position to refuse? Not only can't they afford it, but there are always hungrier folks salivating for their jobs.
Paying the local minimum wage sounds good. But in countries such as Vietnam and Haiti, such wages don't even provide for three squares and a roof overhead. This is progress? Factories should pay at least a local subsistence wage.
And about those "outside monitors." Outside does not always mean independent. Manufacturers will choose their own, and they lean toward auditing firms. How effective can such monitoring be? Nike, for instance, now employs auditing watchdogs. This certainly hasn't ended its abuse. Even the participation of local human-rights types will not be enough unless public disclosure - which is still questionable - rules the day.
My own feeling is that companies, like Liz Claiborne, that have already shown a conscience will continue to do so. And those who lack one can easily go about business as usual under cover as enlightened capitalists.
Incidentally, while the prime motivation for companies to exploit these workers is clearly economic, there is a racist component. Our tendency to view those of a different race or religion as less than human is, unfortunately, still very much alive. If these workers are subhuman, then they don't matter and we can abuse or even kill them with impunity. It's a form of slavery or economic Nazism. But I digress.
Given the best-case scenario that the code works flawlessly, the system's real muscle belongs to us, the consumers. Let's assume the "No Sweat' label means what it says. Will it matter enough to us? Are we willing to undergo inconvenience, however slight, or to pay more, however little?
I hate to admit this, but I'm not real optimistic. It's been my experience - when it comes to environmental concerns, for instance - that most people may care in a broad sense. However, it's a different story when there are personal consequences.
Let's say you're searching for that perfect dress. Your time and budget are limited. You find the perfect frock. And it's even on clearance. You couldn't afford it if it wasn't marked down. The label says "Made in Haiti" and it doesn't have a No Sweat tag. Will you buy it? Or will you heed the words of a human-rights advocate and "Just don't do it."
My suspicion is that too many of us will make the purchase. Suddenly, what's happening to people halfway around the world carries little significance. Our comfort and pocketbook are paramount. Just don't do it.
Roberta Rosenfield Wells is an Asbury Park Press correspondent. Her column appears every other Sunday. Her e-mail address is email@example.com.
Nike in the News
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