By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
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Businesses also demanded (and got) the right to determine which of their factories inspectors would visit -- a procedure not unlike drug-test subjects deciding which drugs they would be tested for and when. Under the AIP agreement, companies -- now called members of the Fair Labor Association -- would select 10 percent of their factories for inspection in each of the first three years, and 5 percent in succeeding years. This could give corporations certification as ”sweat-free“ employers even though 90 percent to 95 percent of their plants would go unscrutinized in any given year.
A third controversy revolved around secrecy. Under the AIP-approved plan there would be no consumer access to the monitors‘ reports -- these would remain confidential, with the Fair Labor Association making public only an annual summary of each company’s compliance -- ”an illusion of public oversight,“ says UNITE official Alan Howard.
These issues, among others, produced an impasse, resolved only when UNITE and several of the nonprofits left the AIP table in 1998 -- in response to corporate threats to quit if UNITE stayed.
Labor and its allies challenge the idea that occasional visits by outside inspectors -- even without the defects they criticized -- are the most effective approach to preventing workplace abuses. United Students Against Sweatshops advocates a different strategy, which would focus on training local civic groups (who speak the language and know the country‘s culture) as monitors, and make inspections in response to worker complaints, rather than on a random schedule. But under their proposal -- the Worker Rights Consortium -- inspections would not be merely reactive. They also call for aggressive policing in countries that suppress unions and worker rights, and with companies where violations are chronic. This proposal would also require licensees to ”fix“ problem factories rather than closing them and walking away to a new subcontractor. The threat of shutdowns (and consequent job loss) frequently inhibits employees from reporting on illegal wages or working conditions, says Medea Benjamin of Global Exchange.
Members of the UC committee proposed developing pilot projects to experiment with inspection methods, but, says professor Appelbaum, UC’s administration wasn‘t interested. Instead, Cal has joined Harvard and three other universities in underwriting a $250,000 study of working conditions in three Central American and four Asian countries to explore ways they might be improved. The study -- involving interviews with government and labor officials, civic groups, factory owners and managers, as well as plant inspections -- is coordinated by the Business for Social Responsibility Education Fund, which in turn is supported by 1,000 corporations, including major apparel makers. Visits to Mexico and China by two- and three-person teams have been completed, and the project should be wrapped up by June, says BSR vice president Aaron Cramer.
PriceWaterhouse was chosen by the university administrations to organize the factory visits, despite the skepticism of student and faculty committee members. In response to their misgivings, environment and health expert Dara O’Rourke, a former consultant to the U.N. development program, was added to the research team.
Committee members are taking a wait-and-see attitude, but continue to favor supplementary studies by UC‘s personnel. ”We’ve got such a wealth of talent in the UC system,“ says UC Riverside sociologist Edna Bonacich, who specializes in labor issues. ”It‘s just a terrible waste not to use it.“