The abhorrent conditions in some clothesmaking factories overseas have been well-documented and vivid: children stitching tennis shoes, women earning a quarter for a day's work, workshops with blocked exits.
Yet antidotes have been scarce. Who can patrol violations in scores of tiny and often autocratic countries? How can multinational corporations keep tabs on the myriad of manufacturers they contract and subcontract out to? And how can consumers know if they are buying clothing made in sweat shops?
A historic pact between clothing manufacturers, human rights groups, and labor organizations may now offer a solution. But like current codes covering working conditions, say experts, the key will be enforcement.
The agreement to be formally announced by the White House today is a first - the first time the disparate parties involved, including brand-name retailers such as Reebok, L.L. Bean, and Liz Claiborne, as well as religious groups, human rights advocates, and labor unions have sat down at the same table. As such, it was all the more remarkable that - after eight months of wrangling - the group arrived at this unique pact to protect garment workers around the world.
"This is very historic. It's a major step in the right direction," says Jay Mazur, president of UNITE!, the Union of Needletrades, Industrial, and Textile Employees, one of two unions represented in the negotiations.
But groups on both sides of the issue still have reservations about the effectiveness of the measures. Human rights and labor groups are concerned the code won't be monitored properly and that minimum wages overseas may not be fair wages. Some apparel companies say the pact does little more than duplicate the codes they already uphold.
The voluntary agreement specifies a maximum work week of 60 hours and limits overtime to 12 hours. It states that companies must pay "at least the minimum wage required by local law or the prevailing industry wage, whichever is higher." The pact also has anti-harassment policies and child-labor restrictions forbidding factories to employ workers younger than 15, with a few exceptions.
To ensure that these standards are upheld, the agreement calls for a team to monitor factories and issue reports of compliance. In dispute still is whether the reports will be made public. The group plans to create a "No Sweat" label, which would be sewn into clothing of those firms that adhere to the agreement. This allows customers to choose clothes made in safe and fair working environments, a concern of 70 percent of shoppers, recent surveys show.
Executives at Reebok, which has had similar codes since 1993, don't expect prices to rise. Though garmentmakers are not bound by law to participate, industry officials say the accord carries weight because it sets a new industry-wide standard for working conditions.
Ten manufacturers worked on the agreement as part of a presidential task force established last summer. Other high-profile retailers are likely to sign on to the standards, observers say, because of the image-conscious nature of the garment industry. "To attach your company name to a label that's sweat free, it could be very good for the company, very profitable," says Charles Kernaghan of the National Labor Committee, a human rights organization. "Companies spend so much time building their images."
BUT the agreement has flaws, both sides say. "Most apparel companies are huge companies and have corporate codes in place already," says Allison Wolf of the American Apparel Manufacturers Association in Arlington, Va. She says the agreement is useless and will not alter the way firms do business.
Ms. Wolf is also concerned with the idea of a No Sweat label, because there will be no way to keep rogue companies from counterfeiting it.
Human rights and labor groups are concerned with the deal's vague language on fair wages. In Haiti, notes Mr. Kernaghan, women earn just six cents per T-shirt sewn. Their wages are only enough to feed a family one meal a day.
Another major concern is over-monitoring. Many on the task force support monitoring by human rights groups who, they say, would have workers' trust and be more likely to elicit the truth about conditions than company representatives. But the industry side favors using accounting firms - who would be well-versed in the often technical labor laws - as monitors. The compromise: Accounting firms will work closely with human-rights groups.
Kernaghan says the compromise will not protect workers, and many human-rights organizations will refuse to participate. "You want the [human rights groups] to play the role of lackey? No human rights groups will ever agree to that. Human rights are not negotiable."
Still, most organizations involved herald the agreement. "We've made very significant progress to the credit of all the parties concerned," says UNITE!'s Mr. Mazur. "We've sat around and we've codified and we've promulgated. Now that all has to be translated into reality."