Child Labor Report 2005|
Codes of conduct have become increasingly common in recent years,
particularly in the apparel sector. While the first codes of conduct in the
apparel industry were developed in the early 1990s,21
today, the majority of the major apparel manufacturers and retailers have
developed or are developing codes or business policies that address child
labor and other working conditions. Many companies are now revising their
codes to incorporate lessons learned from their own or other companies'
experiences. While this report focuses on the child labor provisions of
codes of conduct, many of its findings can be generalized to the other labor
provisions that codes often address.
The recent proliferation of codes of conduct can be attributed to several
factors. With media reports and expos's on child labor becoming more
frequent, consumers -- and therefore companies -- are becoming increasingly
concerned about the conditions under which the garments they purchase are
made. Companies' adoptions of codes of conduct serve to ease consumer
concerns -- and their own -- that they may be contributing to the
exploitation of child labor. Often companies adopt codes to project a
positive image and protect their brand-name or quality reputation. Some are
motivated by good intentions; some by bottom-line considerations -- many by
The analysis of codes of conduct contained in this report is based on a
voluntary survey and follow-up telephone interviews with the largest U.S.
retailers and manufacturers of apparel. In its review of the extent and
effectiveness of codes of conduct in the apparel industry, the report has
benefited from the input of representatives of industry, human rights
groups, religious groups, trade unions, workers, academics and other
governments.22 Appendices B and C list the
companies surveyed and reproduce the codes of conduct they provided. Site
visits were under taken to six countries -- the Dominican Republic, El
Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, India, and the Philippines -- that produce
garments for the U.S. market in an attempt to learn more about how codes of
conduct are implemented on the local level. Appendix D provides additional
information on countries visited and persons and organizations with whom
Department of Labor officials met.
Companies with codes of conduct or policies prohibiting the use of child
labor in overseas production facilities use a variety of methods to define
child labor. Some companies refer to "national law" or "international
standards." Some companies, in an effort to avoid adverse publicity, even
require their suppliers to comply with minimum age requirements that are
above the minimum age mandated by national law or international standards.
This is because there is no certainty of what minimum age for employment is
"publicly acceptable," and some companies are prohibiting the employment of
"teenagers" in the 14 - 17 age bracket to avoid workers who could be
While many companies have adopted codes either to prevent, or in response
to, adverse publicity, having a code of conduct can, ironically, make
companies more vulnerable to criticism if conditions are found that violate
their code. Indeed, some companies still consider it "safer" to avoid any
public declaration of their standards through a code of conduct.
Furthermore, the most important developments today do not lie so much in
adopting codes, which are already widespread, but in the ways companies are
devising to implement those codes. Some companies have adopted codes before
fully developing methods to implement them. As Chapter II notes, the
international apparel industry is complex, with many U.S. companies sourcing
from hundreds or thousands of overseas buying agents, contractors and
subcontractors. For this reason, implementation presents definite challenges
for many importers.
Some companies require their quality control personnel to double as
social auditors, while others are engaging outside firms to survey
compliance. Still others ask their contractors to sign a contract certifying
that they do not hire children, and then rely on the word of the contractor
without further verification. Some companies are experimenting with new
approaches, literally learning as they go. Some have begun working with
unions, human rights and religious groups to establish a monitoring system.
Credibility is the critical element for codes of conduct. Without it, the
promises contained in a code are hollow and the credibility of the company
falters. Companies' success in assuring the public that their policies on
labor practices abroad are indeed being followed will depend on the three
key elements of implementation that are discussed in detail in Chapters II
and III -- (1) transparency, (2) monitoring, and (3) enforcement.
First, codes of conduct cannot be effectively implemented without
transparency. It is critical that all actors affected by a code buying
agents, contractors, subcontractors, union representatives and the workers
themselves be aware of its provisions. Research conducted for this report
suggests that codes of conduct conceived in the headquarters of U.S. apparel
importers are not necessarily well known in the overseas facilities that
produce their garments.
Second, while a credible system of monitoring -- to verify that a code is
indeed being followed in practice -- is essential, there is no agreement on
the best way to conduct monitoring. Some companies only monitor their
largest contractors or contractors that produce private-label merchandise
for them and rely on buyer agents or self-monitoring for other facilities.
Several methods of monitoring are currently being used and developed,
including monitoring by outside auditors and local and international NGOs.
The most effective type of monitoring may vary according to the
characteristics of the importing company, such as whether it has a strong
presence abroad or whether it is vertically integrated. It appears that the
closer a company is to the production, the more leverage it has to ensure
that the conditions at manufacturing facilities comply with its policies.
There also appears to be some dispute among retailers, manufacturers,
overseas contractors and other par ties as to who has the ultimate
responsibility for monitoring.
Third, the issue of enforcement presents some complex issues. If a
company discovers child workers in a facility, the quickest and perhaps
easiest way to resolve the problem is to require their immediate dismissal.
A small number of companies have strived to come up with more comprehensive
solutions to the problem such as providing financial support for the
education of the children.
These are some of the pitfalls and challenges that companies face in
attempt ing to enforce their code of conduct in overseas facilities. An
effective implementa tion program can be time-consuming and financially
burdensome. But just as com panies invest in the quality of their clothes,
they are now learning how to effectively invest in the quality of their