Bridging Divides for the Greater Good: Taking a lesson from President Clinton’s vision for reforming U.S. apparel sourcing

This is a guest post by Kathryn “Kitty” Higgins, to commemorate the 15th anniversary of the convening of the Apparel Industry Partnership – which has evolved into the Fair Labor Association.  Ms. Higgins served as Deputy Secretary for the U.S. Department of Labor and is currently Chair of the Fair Labor Association Board of Directors.

Kathryn "Kitty" Higgins

As Deputy Secretary for the U.S. Department of Labor in the 1990s, I was acutely aware of the highly-publicized cases of workers’ rights abuses occurring in factories across the globe. While Kathie Lee Gifford’s clothing line became a symbol for all that was wrong with international sourcing by U.S. apparel manufacturers, the crisis was much bigger than any one brand. Millions of men and women were working in deplorable conditions, producing some of the most popular clothing and footwear in the United States and Europe. I will always think of that time as a turning point for consumers who, no longer blind to the injustices of sweatshop labor, began to demand change.

President Bill Clinton recognized this demand, but also acknowledged that the issue was much too complex and widespread to be solved by any one company, or even by the U.S. government. With this in mind, he convened an unlikely group – leading brands, non-governmental organizations, and trade union representatives – and challenged them to solve this crisis. The diverse group, christened the Apparel Industry Partnership, gathered at the White House on August 2, 1996, amid predictions that parties with such seemingly conflicting interests would be incapable of working together for the greater good.

A number of critics and skeptics refused to work together and walked away. But many more stayed and, over the years, this growing coalition of companies, NGOs and other concerned parties, including colleges and universities, has continued to work together. The progress they have made, despite their differences, has engendered a mutual trust and respect that is steadily moving them closer to achieving a common goal: better conditions and respect for workers worldwide. What began as a small group of key players rapidly evolved to include dozens of others, such as H&M, the University of Notre Dame, and the Global Fairness Initiative, just to name a few.

The group, known today as the Fair Labor Association (FLA), agreed on a framework of principles – a workplace code of conduct – and began monitoring factories to ensure that internationally recognized labor standards were being upheld. At that time, the approach seemed simple: hold companies accountable for conditions in the factories where they sourced their products. Under that mandate, hundreds of factory audits were conducted and re-conducted, and factories were compelled to comply with established standards. Significant gains were made in many factories over the decade that followed, including trade union recognition; limits on overtime and child labor; and improved health and safety standards.

Unfortunately, while progress was made, many of the positive changes implemented immediately following the audits did not stick. Often, factory owners and managers agreed to remedy labor violations, only to have those same issues resurface months or years later. It is now widely understood that repeated labor violations are evidence of deeper problems, such as gaps in policies and procedures or other underlying management inefficiencies in factories. Rather than simply press ahead with strategies that were not working well enough, FLA participants continued listening, talking, probing and working together to enact change. They are devising solutions to address the root problems that lead to repetitive labor violations and developing the tools, resources and trainings necessary to help factories strengthen vital employment functions and improve conditions in their facilities.

Much has been accomplished, but there is more to be done as evidenced in recent reports of ongoing workers’ rights violations in Cambodia, Jordan and Indonesia. It would be easy to look the other way, or throw in the towel, arguing that these problems are just too hard, too intractable or no longer matter. But the progress we have made did not come from pointing fingers or assigning blame. Rather, people of goodwill from different backgrounds and often conflicting interests and priorities came together and agreed to work hard, day after day and year after year, to find solutions that truly respect the dignity of factory workers around the world.

In 2010 alone, an estimated 4.6 million workers were impacted by these efforts. The true measure of success, however, is not the number of workers, but the nature of the impact – the degree to which workers are more respected by their employers, have more of a voice in their own futures, and feel safer at work. Clearly, President Clinton’s belief has been vindicated, that with good will, hard work, and well-defined goals, divides can be bridged and people from all sides can come together to address the pressing issues of our time. Fifteen years after President Clinton’s challenge was first issued, the FLA offers a successful model for collaboration that others would do well to follow.

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