The University Record, October 16, 2000

Report issued on working conditions in factories making licensed apparel

By Joel Seguine
News and Information Services

The U-M, along with Harvard University, the Ohio State University, the University of California and the University of Notre Dame, released Oct. 6 the report of a team of independent consultants that the universities commissioned to gather and analyze information on apparel manufacturing.

Termed the “Independent University Initiative” because it is unaffiliated with any other inquiry, the year-long effort began in summer 1999, and the five participating universities underwrote its costs.

For the report, the team compiled and analyzed information about working conditions in the apparel industry in seven countries. The team observed working conditions in a sampling of factories in countries that represent a substantial portion of the university-licensed apparel business, and surveyed efforts being undertaken by government, business, labor and independent organizations that are attempting to improve conditions for the workers.

The team found that:

  • Sub-par working conditions exist in apparel factories in all of the countries visited, as reported by stakeholders and confirmed by factory visits.

  • The diffuse nature of apparel production hinders enforcement of labor standards.

  • Awareness of codes of conduct and monitoring efforts is currently insufficient to promote effective compliance.

  • Many trade unions and some non-governmental organizations are skeptical about the efficacy of monitoring.

  • The proliferation of codes of conduct and the resulting duplication of monitoring efforts does not support greater compliance.

  • It is particularly challenging to gather information from workers about the conditions in factories.

    The report also identified issues of concern focusing on compliance with wage and hour and health and safety regulations, limitations of freedom of association and collective bargaining, employment discrimination and related issues.

    The consultant team also discussed good practices that it had identified, local conditions hindering compliance with good working conditions and opportunities for universities to contribute to the improvement of conditions.

    The report was prepared by the consultant team of the Business for Social Responsibility Education Fund (BSREF) of San Francisco, the Investor Responsibility Research Center (IRRC) of Washington, D.C., and Dara O’Rourke, assistant professor, Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

    The consultants visited factories that manufacture licensed apparel in Mexico, China/Hong Kong, El Salvador, Thailand, Pakistan, Korea and the United States. They interviewed representatives of 24 non-governmental organizations; 15 companies or business associations; 22 public officials or international organizations; 12 trade unions; and nine researchers, academics and attorneys. The consultants visited 13 factories and prepared monitoring reports on each. The consultants also reviewed other anti-sweatshop initiatives, including independent monitoring projects.

    Information on workplace conditions was gathered in factories by PricewaterhouseCoopers, which was accompanied on half its visits by representatives of the BSREF, IRRC and/or O’Rourke.

    In releasing the report for public discussion, the universities emphasized that the initiative was not conceived or carried out as a monitoring project. Also, information gathered from the monitoring of selected factories was not tied to particular factories or licensees, but rather was presented as a means of evaluating compliance issues specific to each country, and of demonstrating the role of monitoring as part of an overall compliance strategy. One of the report’s conclusions is that gathering complete and reliable information about working conditions in factories making licensed apparel is a difficult process.

    Larry Root, chair of the recently appointed Standing Committee on Labor Standards and Human Rights, said, “The committee will look to this report and other sources to better understand apparel production and to help us explore possible actions to improve working conditions.” Root is director of the Institute of Labor and Industrial Relations and professor of social work.

    The report is on the Web at www.umich.edu/~newsinfo/Releases/2000/Oct00/report.pdf.