American firms that contract out manual labor to overseas factories are closely watched for how workers in those plants are treated. The companies know that US anti-sweatshop activists can quickly spark a consumer boycott with the first sign of worker abuse.
So it's a sign of progress that a report on abuses in Indonesian factories used by shoe giant Nike is leading to remedy, not a big consumer revolt.
Once a magnet for protest, Nike has helped fund a series of studies of those factories by the nonprofit Global Alliance for Workers and Communities. Abuses found by the Alliance included difficulties in getting medical care, verbal abuse, sexual molestation, and nonpayment for overtime.
US companies that contract their work overseas have found it in their interest to be sensitive to worker-abuse charges. By insisting on improved conditions in factories, the firms find the better-treated workers often are more productive.
Bridging the gap between Western labor practices and much of the rest of the world is a long-term prospect. At the least, these factories must pay above the prevailing market wage or the national minimum wage. And certain labor standards are universal - safe working conditions and freedom from sexual and physical abuse. These private efforts at reform remain the best way to get rid of sweatshops.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society