Stamping Out Sweatshops

A new joint effort by businesses is a promising first step

The mid-1990s furor over the revelation that entertainer Kathy Lee Gifford's clothing line was being sewn by children making less than 35 cents an hour may be a distant memory. Yet the centuries-old problem of manufacturing sweatshops remains a current issue. That's why we were heartened by the debut in late April of the Joint

Initiative on Corporate Accountability & Workers' Rights, an ambitious pilot project sponsored by six anti-sweatshop activist groups and eight global apparel makers, including big names such as Nike (NKE ), Gap (GPS ), and Patagonia. It would establish a single set of labor standards and common plant-inspection guidelines at dozens of factories in Turkey that produce apparel and other goods for the companies.

This 30-month experiment is a great first step in bringing order to the piecemeal manner in which even the biggest companies set and monitor workplace conditions across the developing world. But a much broader solution is required to make real progress against sweatshop conditions. There are currently only about 100 large, mostly Western companies actively involved in the anti-sweatshop movement. Their efforts over the past decade are laudable but ultimately insufficient because thousands of other manufacturers don't participate. Building consensus around basic universal standards for particular industries, say apparel or consumer electronics, is crucial. Otherwise, why should one manufacturer incur the cost of upgrading and continually monitoring its workplace standards if it has to compete with factories without the same obligations?

Global retailers, such as $285 billion Wal-Mart Stores Inc. (WMT ), are therefore an integral part of any sweatshop solution. They buy goods from thousands of plants worldwide, so any workplace standards they set for their suppliers have immediate and far-reaching impact. Wal-Mart says it already has talked to other retailers about common workplace standards and has increased its own plant monitoring, which critics have called inadequate. Obviously, retailers aren't eager to expand their policing role, but business shouldn't lose this opportunity to devise a cost-efficient, private industry solution to the sweatshop problem rather than wait for government-imposed fixes.

Likewise, the Turkish experiment should provide a perfect laboratory to study the ambitious living-wage proposal -- which sets a minimum manufacturing wage for each country based on worker living costs -- championed by New York anti-sweatshop group Social Accountability International. A local living wage is a particularly contentious issue for manufacturers, since it is subjectively determined and likely to exceed the local legal minimum wage in many countries. Even some anti-sweatshop activists aren't sure it's a viable idea. But bringing real-world data to this debate would be invaluable. Indeed, manufacturers, retailers, and worker advocates still have a lot to learn about what works and what doesn't in curbing sweatshop abuses. The Joint Initiative experiment is a good place to start.

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