Message from FLA Board Chair Kitty Higgins

Sign up to receive updates on our work.


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. Read the rest of this entry »

Sunita’s Story: Measuring Social Compliance Impact on Farms in India

Rohini Chandrasekaran, FLA’s Agriculture Program Coordinator, recently visited several Syngenta-contracted farms producing hybrid vegetable seeds in India. Syngenta is a Participating Company in the FLA. One of the objectives of her trip was to learn more about the impact of Sygenta’s affiliation with FLA on the lives of workers. This is a guest post from Rohini.

I visited a farm in Giroli, where sweet pepper, watermelon, marigold, hot pepper, and tomato seeds are grown for Syngenta. The farm has been associated with Syngenta for the past 20 years. According to the farmers, their association with Syngenta resulted in decent money, increased social status and a good image in the society. The growers like the social compliance aspect of the Syngenta program. According to the growers, honesty and trust among workers builds ownership and leads to profitable seed production. Hence, they accept the requirement that workers should be treated well as these workers are crucial in completing the cross-pollination activity effectively. The growers realized that creating a good work culture and environment would help them to attain prosperity in the seed business.

Sunita (left) works on Syngenta supplier farm in India

Some of the practises introduced as part of Syngenta’s social compliance program include access to incentives like food, tea, medical support, transportation, sponsored picnics; provision of safe drinking water; dining with workers to build relationships; motivating workers’ children to attend school; providing shelter and care for small children; providing overtime premium during pollination; requiring that workers wear personal protective equipment; and more. The majority of the growers I spoke with said that their association with the FLA has helped them understand the importance and value of good working conditions on their farms. In fact, several said that even if they were not monitored by FLA in the future, they would continue these practices on their own because of the long-term benefits for their business.

During this trip I met with a 17-year-old girl, Sunita, who has worked on a seed production farm since last year. Here’s what a typical day looks like for Sunita:

  • 10:00 a.m.: a vehicle from the farmer’s house arrives at her house
  • Work begins upon arrival at the farm. Sunita works especially on inter-cultivation operations such as cross-pollination, ticking, tying, and fertigation.
  • 2:00 p.m.: one-hour break
  • Work continues after the break.
  • 6:00 p.m.: transportation provided back to her home.

Read the rest of this entry »

FLA Helps Ensure Ethical Production in Africa

The International Trade Center’s (ITC) Ethical Fashion Program supports the development of marginalized communities of women in Kenya and Uganda, mostly groups of artisans based in poor rural and urban settings. The program enables disadvantaged African communities and their groups of informal manufacturers to become part of the global supply chain, thus developing their export capacities and strengthening their position in both the domestic and regional markets. The project is based on a joint effort of the ITC and Ethical Fashion Africa Ltd. (EFAL), which is based in Nairobi. Watch the video below to learn more about EFAL and designer Vivienne Westwood’s collection.

Vodpod videos no longer available.

Ethical Fashion Africa Program, posted with vodpod

EFAL affiliated with the FLA in February 2010 to work towards better management of the risks in their supply chain. EFAL’s affiliation has been handled as a special project for the first year due to its unusual and diverse supply chain, which extends to informal workshops, communities and home-based work. Within the first few months of collaboration, FLA provided ITC with new tools and methods – including photo elicitation.  This method helped illustrate the day-to-day lives of the workers, painting a more complete picture of the program’s impact on workers’ lives. Photo elicitation is an explorative approach among a small sample of workers to discover what a typical workday looks like; how workers view their lives, their work, and their community; what is most important to them; and how the Ethical Fashion Program is embedded into their daily routines. Read more about the Ethical Fashion Program and see the recently-published 2010 FLA Annual Report to learn more about the photo elicitation method used during program development.

FLA Releases Enhanced Code of Conduct & Compliance Benchmarks

FLA Board discusses Code of Conduct enhancements

Earlier today, FLA held a live stakeholder webinar to announce its enhanced Workplace Code of Conduct and Compliance Benchmarks.  Approved by the FLA Board of Directors on June 14, the revised Code strengthens protection of workers’ rights and reflects lessons learned during implementation of the former Code over the past decade.  Enhancements include:


  1. Requirements to establish human resource management policies and procedures along the entire factory employment lifecycle, from recruitment and hiring to terms and conditions of employment, administration of compensation, work rules and discipline, and termination and retrenchment.
  2. A limit for regular weekly hours of work.
  3. A requirement that employers, working with the FLA, take appropriate actions that seek to progressively realize a level of compensation that meets workers’ basic needs and provides some discretionary income.
  4. Mitigation of negative impacts that the workplace has on the environment.

Please click here to review the following materials:

  • The complete 2011 Code of Conduct and Compliance Benchmarks.
  • A summary of revisions to the Code of Conduct and Compliance Benchmarks.
  • FAQs about the enhanced Code and Benchmarks.

Download today’s press release about the enhanced Code of Conduct and contact FLA staff with any questions.

School House brings ethical fashion to colleges & universities

On May 27, School House CEO Rachel Weeks visited FLA headquarters in Washington, D.C., to update staff on the development of her business and share lessons she learned while working in Sri Lanka to help ensure women were paid a living wage while producing School House apparel.  School House was the first company to visit FLA’s new headquarters location, and staff gathered to hear Weeks’ story.

School House CEO Rachel Weeks visits FLA

In 2007, Weeks traveled to Sri Lanka as a U.S. Fulbright Scholar with the goal of launching her own ethical fashion line and bringing more stylish and customized collegiate apparel to Duke – her alma mater.  In a short time, Weeks hired a designer, found a factory, and started producing her clothing line.  The most important part of her business? Paying premium prices to the factory to provide a living wage for the workers producing School House apparel.

“Students don’t often stop to consider that they can have their cake and eat it too – they think that they have to choose between being ethical and being fashionable,” Weeks said during her visit. “It doesn’t have to be all or nothing.  My goal with School House is to create clothes people want to wear while ensuring a living wage is being paid during production.”

Although Weeks started her company with ethical sourcing in mind, she recognizes that many of the big brands are working to overcome huge barriers to ethical production.  “Consumers should be willing to recognize companies’ efforts to improve. Sometimes we don’t realize the enormous challenges companies are up against in managing global supply chains,” Weeks said. Read the rest of this entry »