APRIL 14, 1997
Today the President announced an effort to reduce the use of sweatshops to manufacture products purchased by Americans. According to President Clinton, the agreement establishes, "a workplace code of conduct that companies will voluntarily adopt, and require their contractors to adopt, to dramatically improve the conditions under which goods are made." Following a background report by Charles Krause, three experts debate the merits of the code.
CHARLES KRAUSE: For more on today's agreement we're now joined by Roberta Karp, who served as a co-chair of the presidential task force and is also vice president of corporate affairs and general counsel for Liz Claiborne, Incorporated. Ms. Karp's company designs clothing and has contracts with over 200 factories in 25 countries around the world. And Jay Mazur, who's president of the Needletrades Industrial and Textile Employees Union, which represents more than 325,000 workers in the United States, Canada, and Puerto Rico. Mr. Mazur was also a member of the Sweatshop Task Force. And Medea Benjamin, who's director of Global Exchange, a human rights group based in San Francisco. Thank you all for joining us. Mr. Mazur, gentlemen, first, let me ask you the president today said this was a historic agreement. Do you agree?
A RealAudio version of this segment is available.
April 14, 1997
Charles Krause provides a background report on sweatshops.
April 14, 1997
Read President Clinton's comments regarding the apparel industry's partnership to end sweatshops.
July 16, 1996:
Charlayne Hunter-Gault leads a discussion of celebrity clothes lines made by sweatshops.
Browse the Online NewsHour's economics and business coverage.
Browse a page on sweatshops by Unite!, a labor group.
JAY MAZUR, Union of Needletrades, Industrial, Textile Employees: Yes, I agree. It's unprecedented. No other industry has attempted to codify certain forms of behavior. It's unprecedented in the sense of the companies and those who participated, particularly the manufacturers and others who participated, recognize they live in a global village, and they have global responsibilities, and then went on to indicate that they felt responsible behaving in certain ways; that consumers had a right to know the conditions under which their goods are being produced, and that they would lend themselves to some form of monitoring. It was less than we wanted, but it's part of an overall compromise. We think it's a step--the first step in the right direction. I consider it very historic.
CHARLES KRAUSE: Ms. Karp, why did companies like yours and others want to participate in this kind of an agreement?
ROBERTA KARP, Liz Claiborne, Inc.: Well, our company has always been very committed to making sure that our products are made under decent working conditions, and we view this as a unique opportunity to join with other points of view to really result in a more credible product, and I think that's what we have, as Jay said. There was compromise here, but that's what's really going to let us forge forward and make a difference in lives around the world. It's a very exciting time for us.
CHARLES KRAUSE: Now, I understand that this is a voluntary agreement. What do you plan to do, others plan to do to try to get more companies involved?
ROBERTA KARP: It's very important to get more companies involved. You can't take just, you know, a handful or two of leading companies to do this effectively. You need other companies. I plan on personally being on the phone with a number of my colleagues in the industry and I think really tell them that it's time to join on because many companies have been doing things individually, but this is a more accountable system. So there's more credibility to it, and I think that's the value.
CHARLES KRAUSE: Good. Ms. Benjamin in San Francisco, you've heard it described as historic. Ms. Karp has said that companies will be more credible for having a part of it. What do you think?
MEDEA BENJAMIN, Global Exchange: (San Francisco)Well, I think, as Kathie Lee Gifford said, something good has come out of this. What's come out of it is good PR for the companies. It's a lousy agreement. It doesn't talk about workers getting a living wage that they can feed their families on. They say a minimum is good enough and a minimum is not enough for three meals a day. It talks about overtime. Well, you can do all the hours you want of "voluntary overtime," which workers are doing right now. The monitors--there are monitoring systems in place right now. NIKE has its accounting firm, Ernst & Young, and calls it independent monitors, and there are tremendous abuses in the NIKE factories, so I think we have basically gone a step backwards because it gives the impression to consumers that things are going to be better when things are going to be exactly the same.
CHARLES KRAUSE: Ms. Karp, among the charges is that companies like NIKE already have many of these same safeguards in place, to speak, but they're not enforced. Is that true?
ROBERTA KARP: Companies have done a number of things that are quite significant, but the difference today is that it's not just an outside auditor or an internal company person which can make change, and the Secretary of Labor has said in his report on child labor that conditions have improved just by those efforts, but what's historic is that we are bringing in local institutions who have the trust of the workers to help communicate with the workers so they understand their rights. And that--that's a big step forward, as well are report back, so it's going to be a broader range of people with more credibility understanding what's happening on the ground. And then we have to live up to our codes. And that's something that I have seen a huge commitment on the part of the companies, and our company is tremendous committed to that.
JAY MAZUR: And if I could suggest something, Charles, I think you have to start this process at the beginning. This is a struggle that's been going on for a hundred years. Our union was formed in 1900. I think the major thrust here, among other things, in addition to the substance of the agreement, one is that there was a recognition on the part of the companies that there was a problem. There was a recognition that they had to deal with sweatshops. There was a recognition that they had to do it in a certain way, whether it's limiting the hours, and the hours are being limited by 48 and 12. It's less than we wanted, more than they wanted to give. There's a process of negotiations. This was a voluntary undertaking by a group of people brought together. It was a broad-based group. There was the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights. There was the Robert F. Kennedy Foundation. There was the International Lawyers Association. There was the National Council of Churches. There was the National Consumers League.
It was a broad-based coalition of those of us who believe that we have to move into the 20th century, not the 21st century, and the process simply went forward. And I think it was, in its initial stages, a major step in the right direction. I use it word in its first stages, a step in the--it's not nirvana. It's not the end of the process. It's a beginning of a process. And now we have to implement it, and I think in that sense the recognition that there was a problem. For instance, the fact that the companies work overseas, acknowledge the fact that workers have a right of free association, the right of--a right of collective bargaining is a major step in the right direction. The fact that companies recognize that they shouldn't have child labor, I think the recognition of the problem is the beginning of the process, buttressed by the fact--
MEDEA BENJAMIN: Can I--
JAY MAZUR: --that there were specific areas of concern that were spelled out.
CHARLES KRAUSE: Let me go to Ms. Benjamin.
MEDEA BENJAMIN: Well, these companies have already recognized that. Most of them have had these codes in place already for several years. Recognizing that workers have the right to organize means nothing when you run to China and you run to Indonesia and you run to the Maquiladora section in Central America, where you get put in jail when you start to organize independent unions. Recognizing the most basic thing about a sweatshop is what are workers paid; workers are paid now minimum wage, which is below subsistence. They are paid 20 cents an hour in Vietnam. They're paid 30 cents an hour in Haiti. They're paid 48 cents an hour in Indonesia. This is not enough money for workers to live on. So this is--
JAY MAZUR: And we agree. We agree.
MEDEA BENJAMIN: --a lousy agreement because it doesn't start from the basic, basic premise which is what is a living wage. And a company should be forced to pay a worker enough to feed a family on.
CHARLES KRAUSE: Ms. Karp, let me ask you to respond to that. This does not--the agreement, as I understand it, does not, in fact, mandate wages, as such, does it?
ROBERTA KARP: It doesn't. It recognizes that wages are essential to basic needs, and what we tried to do is reach a consensus so we can move forward in a credible way. And that's what we did. In terms of a living wage issue, I recognize that's an enormous issue. It's a very difficult one. It's a global one, and there are several sides to that argument, at least two. One is if you artificially increase wages, you might harm those areas, and industry might go away. And so I've been to these countries, and I've spoken to workers, and I've spoken to the government. And they desperately want the jobs. And we want to enforce those workers' rights in a very credible, responsible way. And I think you'll see a year from now that conditions will improve, and they'll rise to a level that might not be what everybody wanted, but it's a great advance forward, and we should all be proud of it. The President recognized this as historic.
CHARLES KRAUSE: Maybe it would be helpful here just to briefly explain exactly what the agreement does say about wages. What will companies be required or agree to do outside the United States?
ROBERTA KARP: Well, the companies in the United States and around the world will monitor it to make sure that the actual wages required by law are being paid, and that there are no unlawful deductions, and quite frankly, that is a step forward; to make sure that the workers aren't being taken advantage of. And often the workers don't know the rights. And a very critical part of the code of conduct and the monitoring is to make sure that the rights are communicated because I've seen our standard of engagement posted all around in various countries, but I don't think the workers really understood, and there is an active component there. And that's the benefit of engaging all these different groups. And then we're going to have an association, and we can't lose sight of that, which will make sure it happens. It will keep people accountable. This isn't a public relations boom for us. It really is, as I've said, a big target on our backs to do the right thing and to do what we say.
CHARLES KRAUSE: Let me ask Mr. Mazur, if you would, explain briefly, what exactly--how this monitoring is going to work. We've heard about accounting firms. We've heard about local groups. Exactly what is required? Because enforcement seems to be a pretty important issue here.
JAY MAZUR: Well, before I get to that, Charles, let me just say this. In the question of wages, I consider Ms. Benjamin an ally in this struggle. And allies often disagree. There are those who feel we went too far, and there are those who feel we haven't gone far enough, and I guess they're both right. I do think that the wages paid overseas in countries like Haiti and in China and certainly where there is no democracy, and in countries where somewhat--they're more democratic--whether it's in Latin America--that those wages are unconscionably low. We were not in a position in the first stages of any discussions to establish wages. The discussion on a livable wage is still going on. Those discussions were very heavy during the debate and during our desire to come to some conclusion. A question of livable wage is still on the agenda going forward. The question of enforcing independent monitoring is still on the agenda. We have reached some tentative stages. We have reached agreement on minimum standards that we've established, and we're going to continue to go forward. We insisted--and if you read today--Sunday's New York Times, I said very clearly--and I say it again here--that we cannot have the fox watching the chickens. If we're going to have independent monitoring, then NGO's have to be involved--
CHARLES KRAUSE: Non-governmental organizations.
JAY MAZUR: Non-governmental organizations. And human rights organizations. And this was the group that was made--that I alluded to a moment ago. We have been involved in an extraordinary effort outside the pale of the association, our union, allies with us, groups like Mrs. Benjamin's, and others, in--in trying to deal with the problem. We're trying--but what we're discussing here is the confines of this agreement, and in the confines of these agreements I think we've made a major step going forward. In terms of the monitoring that you've alluded to, the fact of the matter is that it's less than we want, more than they wanted to give. I am suggesting that what we have done--what we have done in this case is that they must consult with local human rights groups.
They've got to cooperate with them in communications with workers. They've got to work with them in reporting violations. There is an attachment, there is an accountability. We intend to try to set up a formula which accredits certain accounting firms. The argument simply is and continues to be--and continues--and the attempt will continue to be to work it out where we say the companies cannot do it by themselves. So I understand Ms. Benjamin's--some of her--some of her reservations and some of her cautions. And we have the same cautions. But this, as I said before, is an attempt to move forward, the recognition that there should be some form of independent monitoring, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.
CHARLES KRAUSE: Ms. Benjamin, you've heard Mr. Mazur. Do you think--will organizations like yours--human rights groups and others--try to make this work? I mean, is it worth it, from your perspective, to at least cooperate and see if it's going to work?
MEDEA BENJAMIN: Well, the only way conditions are going to change in the sweatshops today are supporting workers in their organizing work, and certainly Jay Mazur and his union, Unite, are very key in doing that. And the other is for consumers to get good and angry at these companies that are making so much money and not paying workers a fair wage. And I think consumers are angry now. They shouldn't think that this agreement is going to be the solution, and they should continue to pressure companies, continue to express their concerns, that they want companies to pay workers a decent wage. And that's the only way we're going to change this. It's not going to be from this presidential agreement.
CHARLES KRAUSE: A last question because--and we'll come back to this, I'm sure, but how will consumers know in the end, once this gets going, what companies are abiding by the agreement which are not, if they want to buy, based on that?
ROBERTA KARP: The details of that will be worked out in the next six months. We want to make sure that we get other companies to join on to participate and from our association to say what criteria have to be met before you can advertise or do something. So right now we're just wanting to plow ahead and to try to make this stick and implement it and test ourselves. It's a good step forward. It's a strong step. It's a more credible one. And that's what we plan on doing, and the consumers will learn as we go.
MEDEA BENJAMIN: You're going to fool the consumers, unfortunately, because a company like NIKE according to this agreement can keep paying its workers in Vietnam 20 cents an hour, have them do countless hours of voluntary labor, have their Ernst & Young accounting firm doing the monitoring, and then get a "no sweat" label while the sweatshop goes on.
JAY MAZUR: But that's not true. This committee does not give them approval. I don't want to get into individual firms, but there's still a great deal to be worked out. I have some reservations about the activities of NIKE, as you do. I think that has--that has to be seen. This does not give anybody on the committee or outside the panel of this committee a carte blanche and give them the seal of approval.
CHARLES KRAUSE: Thank you. Thank you all very much for joining us.