Sweatshop Labor Issues Unchanged, Activists Say

The Register Guard (Eugene, OR), April 30, 2005 | Go to article overview
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Sweatshop Labor Issues Unchanged, Activists Say

Byline: Sherri Buri McDonald The Register-Guard

In the five years since the sweatshop labor issue caused a temporary rift between the University of Oregon and it biggest donor, Nike executive Phil Knight, little has changed at garment and shoe factories worldwide, labor activists said this week in Eugene.

"There's more information on the issue, but not much progress," said Homero Fuentes, general coordinator of the Commission for the Verification of Codes of Conduct, a leading factory monitoring organization based in Guatemala. Fuentes was attending a global workplace health and safety conference at UO.

Many U.S.-based companies, including Nike, The Gap and Wal-Mart, don't own their own factories. Instead, they contract with manufacturers in many countries.

Guatemala has nearly 105,000 people working in the garment industry, Fuentes said.

"Companies, for publicity purposes, promote that they have socially responsible policies, but it's a different reality at the suppliers, or the contract factories," he said.

That said, The Gap is making more progress than other brands on improving working conditions at its contract factories in Guatemala, Fuentes said.

"They're implementing verification mechanisms," Fuentes said. "It's not the best, but it's one of the few that has made some progress."

Across the globe, in Bangladesh, that view is shared by Kalpana Akter, secretary general of Bangladesh Center for Workers Solidarity. "The Gap and Nike have better standards, and their factory workers are getting better benefits than others," she said.

Bangladesh's garment industry has 3,700 factories employing 1.8 million people - 85 percent of them women, Akter said.

But the actions by The Gap and Nike are relatively small steps in the $800 billion global garment industry, the labor activists said.

This month, Nike for the first time disclosed the identities of 705 contract factories that make its sneakers, clothes and equipment. It was the first major apparel company to voluntarily do so. Nike also acknowledged violations of its code of conduct at some contract factories, including harassment of workers, work weeks of more than 60 hours, underpayment and illegal interference with labor organizing efforts.

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