Letter to Transfair USA regarding Fair Trade Garments Pilot Project
Date of publication: December 23, 2009
Author: Various organizations and unions including ILRF
Signed by: International Labor Rights Forum, SweatFree Communities, Presbyterian Hunger Project, STITCH, Workers United (an affiliate of SEIU) and New York Labor Religion Coalition
As a group of organizations concerned with labor rights, wages, and working conditions in the apparel industry, we have welcomed the opportunity to comment on and discuss TransFair USA’s proposed draft standards for Fair Trade Certified Apparel & Home Goods products over the past several months. Our goal is to help establish the highest possible standards that committed apparel companies can implement within a reasonable period of time, and to help grow the fair trade apparel market to the benefit of growing numbers of workers worldwide.
Most significantly, the proposed standards may allow fair trade certification of products made by workers who are paid poverty wages and perhaps denied meaningful freedom of association. It also appears that factories can be allowed to compel employees to work excessive overtime hours in unsafe conditions and commit other ‘non-major’ transgressions as long as they are in “substantial compliance.” Finally, it is unclear to us whether or not buyers are required—or only encouraged—to maintain just and fair purchasing practices, and whether or not buyers can lose the right to use the fair trade label if they violate responsible sourcing principles.
Based on our analysis of the latest standards for Fair Trade Certified Apparel & Home Goods products and our knowledge of other initiatives towards high-road apparel production, we worry that the proposed standards for apparel to bear a fair trade label will fall short of today’s best
industry practices. We grant that—if there is a robust enforcement program—workers producing under these fair trade standards will enjoy working conditions better than the industry norm. But going just beyond the norm—sweatshop and, at times, near slave-labor conditions— should not be enough. To be the purveyor of a label that would claim to signify a high mark in terms of labor standards, wages, and working conditions, TransFair must truly push the envelope of reform, and only bestow its blessing on workplaces that provide an environment of dignity and respect, and ensure workers a meaningful voice and a decent standard of living, consistent with
the very best industry practices. There is significant risk in a fair trade label that fails to meet this bar. It can mislead consumers, lower the aspirations of major companies, and, in effect, push down standards from the top. This program does not occur in a vacuum. Other efforts that are attempting to implement good labor standards may face more obstacles if TransFair sets a low bar.
We would be proud to openly support real fair trade standards, and happy to promote the pioneering companies that seek to realize those standards for workers. But the present draft standards are not yet strong enough that we can offer our public endorsement.