Correction Appended

With President Clinton and leaders of the apparel industry set to announce a code of conduct on Monday to combat sweatshops worldwide, members of the Administration’s anti sweatshop task force say the success of the effort could turn on issues like what the minimum level of factory pay should be and how much consumers should be told when factories violate the code.

Nike, Reebok, Liz Claiborne and other corporate members of the task force helped develop the code to reassure the public that their products were not made in sweatshops, but some task force members say the apparel makers must agree to further steps to insure that their factories are not sweatshops.

While task force members from labor and human rights groups praise the companies for agreeing to outside monitors, they are also pushing for assurances that the monitors hired by the companies will be free to point out violations. Under the accord, the monitors would be asked to work with human rights groups.

”In no way should employers be the only ones monitoring what they’re doing,” said Jay Mazur, a task force member who is the president of the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees. ”We’re saying monitoring should not be left totally in the hands of the companies. You can’t have the foxes watching the chickens.”

The eight month old task force, which includes L. L. Bean, Nicole Miller, Patagonia and the National Consumers League, is the most ambitious effort by industry, labor and human rights groups to address the problem of sweatshops worldwide. President Clinton set up the group after consumers grew concerned that popular apparel like Wal Mart’s Kathie Lee Gifford line she is a task force member was made in sweatshops that did not pay their workers and had 70 hour workweeks.

After sometimes feverish debate, the task force reached agreement on components of a code of conduct, on having companies agree to outside monitoring and on developing an organization to oversee and certify the monitors. In the next six months, the task force hopes to thrash out differences on carrying out the accord.

”This is a breakthrough agreement that really stands to benefit workers around the world,” said Michael Posner, a task force member and executive director of the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights. ”It establishes a framework that provides consumers with confidence that companies are making good faith efforts to address sweatshop practices. There’s going to be lots of details to work out and lots of conflicts. Remember, we’re dealing with an industry where there continues to be very serious abuses and those are not going to end overnight.”

Task force members expect battles over doing business in China. Labor and human rights groups called on companies to pull out of that fast growing industrial giant because it restricts freedom of association and collective bargaining, two violations of the code of conduct.

After the apparel makers said they would not pull out of China, all sides agreed that the companies should take steps still to be worked out to promote freedom of association and the right to bargain collectively at their factories in China. Labor union officials say they expect a struggle with companies over the steps their Chinese factories should take to allow freedom of association.

”China represents a special kind of problem,” Mr. Mazur said. ”China has to be dealt with once this thing gets off the ground.”

In the task force debates, there was also a tug of war in which industry members pulled to keep manufacturing costs down and maintain maximum autonomy in running their factories. Pulling in the opposite direction, labor and human rights members urged companies to agree to higher wages, shorter hours and independent monitors.

Under the code, apparel workers could not be required to work more than 60 hours a week and factories could not hire children under age 14. The code says a factory must pay at least the minimum wage of the country where it is situated, with an eye to tying wages to the workers’ basic needs. The compromise on wages was adopted after labor and human rights members demanded wages that would support a family,
while apparel companies said they should only have to pay the minimum wage.

Both sides expect arguments over wage levels in countries like Haiti and Indonesia, where the minimum wage is too low to support a family.

”Unless we talk about a living wage and start to define it, a sweatshop will always be a sweatshop,” said Medea Benjamin, who heads Global Exchange, a human rights group not on the task force.

One corporate task force member defended the code, saying: ”I don’t think companies should be found to violate these standards if they pay the minimum wage. However, there is a recognition that this is an issue we will have to deal with again.”

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The 10 manufacturers on the task force vowed to comply with the code of conduct, and in exchange, they will be able to declare that their products were not made in sweatshops, perhaps by attaching ”No Sweat” labels to their apparel. Task force members hope dozens of other manufacturers will pledge to follow the code.

The biggest battle is likely to be over monitoring. The apparel makers demanded the power to choose who would monitor factories and also the right to select accounting firms to do the inspections.

Fearing that accounting firms would take a pro business stance, the human rights and labor members wanted nonprofit organizations, like Jesuit universities or indigenous human rights groups, to be monitors.

In a bow to industry, the code gives companies the right to choose monitors and have accounting firms do the monitoring, so long as the firms chosen are accredited by the association that will oversee the monitoring. But in a nod to human rights groups, the agreement says the accounting firms should work closely with local nonprofit groups, like human rights organizations.

Charles Kernaghan, the director of the National Labor Committee, a labor rights group that frequently criticizes apparel operations abroad, said that it was an ”enormous breakthrough” for so many major American companies to agree to a code and outside monitoring. But he said there were still shortcomings.

”It doesn’t look as if the monitoring will be independent enough,” he said. ”Local human rights groups and other nongovernment organizations can do the monitoring without needing accounting firms. A lot of workers won’t talk to accounting firms candidly. They feel they’re employed by the company and you open your mouth and suddenly you end up in the ironing section where you’re on your feet 12 hours a day.”

Many questions must still be resolved about monitoring: What happens if an accounting firm gives a factory a clean bill of health, but the human rights group working with the firm finds violations? If a factory violates the code, should the monitor make those violations public or just tell the company? If violations are found, should a company be banned from putting ”No Sweat” labels on all its clothes or on just the clothes made by the offending factory?

Pharis Harvey, a task force member and executive director of the International Labor Rights Education and Research Fund, said: ”Deciding how much is to be disclosed is going to take some tough negotiations. We have to balance the companies’ needs for confidentiality with the public’s need for decent information.”

Business members warn that if the rules are too stringent it will be hard to enlist more companies to join.

While task force members say many other apparel makers are interested, Allison Wolf, of the American Apparel Manufacturers Association,
said many of the group’s 300 members would not sign up.

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