By Scott Nova and Ben Hensler. Nova is Executive Director and Hensler is General Counsel for the Worker Rights Consortium, a university-based organization that investigates working conditions and promotes respect for labor rights in manufacturing facilities around the world.
Every year, hundreds of thousands of apparel workers around the world are cheated of legally-earned income when their employers fail to pay mandatory severance benefits. This pernicious form of wage theft, which costs workers the equivalent of at least several months' wages, has afflicted workers sewing clothes for just about every major apparel brand. However, since it is the brands' contract factories that directly employ the workers, the brands insist it's not their problem to fix. Factories close, bosses skip town, the brands wash their hands of the matter - and workers are left high and dry.
On July 21, Nike signed an accord under which it agreed, in effect, to accept financial responsibility for severance owed to workers by two contract factories (workers with the accord pictured left). This sharp break with business as usual by the world's leading sports apparel brand - the result of intense pressure from student activists and the company's university business partners - has significant implications for the global apparel industry.
Outsourcing and Accountability in the Apparel Industry
Outsourcing production to contract factories in the developing world, where labor law enforcement ranges from anemic to non-existent, yields a deregulatory double bonus for American clothing brands. Factories are able to violate worker rights with impunity, affording the brands big savings on labor costs. At the same time, outsourcing insulates brands from any legal accountability, since the lawbreaking from which the brands profit is committed by third parties operating outside the United States.
The primary goal of the contemporary anti-sweatshop movement has been to make it harder for the industry to play this game, by replacing the legal accountability that outsourcing has largely eliminated with accountability to civil society, generated through both consumer and political pressure, and, increasingly, private contractual relations. Activism in the 1990s compelled most apparel brands to publicly accept responsibility for working conditions at contract factories and to adopt private codes of conduct and monitoring regimes ostensibly designed to compel contractors to respect workers' rights.
Unfortunately, these corporate codes have been ineffective at protecting workers and, as a result, sweatshop conditions remain the norm throughout the industry. Brands have taken responsibility in theory, but have been highly adept at avoiding responsibility in practice. Achieving genuine improvements in working conditions would require brands to forego the savings extracted when labor standards are ignored and, instead, pay contractors prices consistent with producing in a lawful manner. Brands have refused to do this, continuing instead to push suppliers to accept prices that can only be met by running roughshod over the rights of workers. Yet despite this, brands have done an effective job of persuading many opinion leaders and consumers that their monitoring programs reflect a sincere effort to raise standards.