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Continued monitoring of apparel industry needed

Two men in the vanguard of monitoring and enforcing international labor standards see the need for even more efforts to improve the quality of oversight of the apparel industry.

Auret van Heerden, executive director of the Fair Labor Association (FLA), and Scott Nova, executive director of the Worker Rights Consortium (WRC), spoke at "Monitoring International Labor Standards: Challenges for the Future," a forum held Feb. 11 in Schorling Auditorium of the School of Education. Lawrence Root, director of the Institute of Labor and Industrial Relations and chair of the University's Committee on Labor Standards and Human Rights, moderated the discussion.

By its nature, Root said, the apparel industry in the global economy consists mostly of low wage, entry-level jobs offered by sub-contractors, who can move easily from country to country, wherever economic incentives are most attractive.

"The workers are quite vulnerable to exploitation."
— Aureet van Heerden

"When retailers were first confronted about the poor working conditions in these factories, they simply denied responsibility," he said. To help address the problems, Root said, a government-industry partnership was created, which led to formation of the FLA. "Then students around the country—including here at U-M—pressured their schools to write codes of conduct into their license agreements with apparel marketers. They felt the FLA to be too much dominated by the industry, so the WRC was formed to monitor the codes."

Apparel manufacturing, van Heerden said, now is distributed among countries by a quota system. "This allows sub-contractors to set up in countries that have no labor laws, and with constant pressure to cut costs, the workers are quite vulnerable to exploitation."

As a staff member of the International Labor Organization before the FLA was formed, he saw the power of a retail brand representative to improve conditions by threatening to withdraw business. "Our approach is to make unannounced visits to factories used by industry members of the FLA and to put the responsibility back on the member to correct the problem," he said.

Nova said the WRC helps colleges and universities enforce the codes of conduct they have required their licensees to adopt. When the WRC receives word of a violation, the organization goes to the factory and launches an investigation. It currently is working at a factory manufacturing licensed apparel with U-M logos and those of other schools in a free-trade zone in El Salvador.

"These zones are set up to attract business. Among the incentives they offer is essentially no labor law enforcement," he said. "We have begun to investigate the all-too-common practice of black-listing job applicants who are known labor unionists. It's a continuing challenge."

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