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Panel to Call for Wage Reforms at Shops

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A White House task force engaged in a pioneer effort to eliminate sweatshops plans to recommend pay and overtime standards for foreign apparel factories that fall far short of minimum U.S. requirements.

Sources close to the talks say the task force plans to recommend that foreign apparel manufacturers who supply American companies pay overtime wages that are at least equal to regular hourly rates.

The group proposes that the regular work week be limited to 60 hours, sources said. American workers, by contrast, are paid higher overtime wages if they work more than the standard 40-hour week.

The task force also plans to recommend that foreign contractors pay at least the country’s minimum wage or the prevailing local wage, sources said, whichever is higher.

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The panel--which includes apparel manufacturers such as Nike and Liz Claiborne, talk show host Kathie Lee Gifford and labor union and consumer group representatives--is expected to present a full list of recommendations to the White House by March 15.

President Clinton is expected to endorse the group’s proposals and urge apparel manufacturers and major retail chains to voluntarily adopt the standards.

The task force was formed following a series of scandals in the apparel industry. Former Labor Secretary Robert Reich sought volunteers for the task force and announced its formation on Aug. 2, 1996, exactly one year after investigators liberated more than 60 Thai workers held in virtual slavery at a garment sweatshop in El Monte.

National attention on sweatshop abuses was renewed in 1996 when labor activists discovered that Honduran children were making clothing for Gifford’s line of garments sold at Wal-Mart.

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The recommendations are included in a draft of the report that still must be approved by task force members, including chief executives of companies on the panel, sources said.

The recommendations on pay, overtime and working hours are compromises on conflicting positions within the task force. Some members believe that the recommendations are not strong enough to prompt change. Others believe that the proposed measures establish important minimum standards that apparel manufacturers and retailers can accept.

How manufacturers and retailers respond to the recommendations is of special significance in the Los Angeles area. The apparel industry is the second-largest employer in the region. However, the Southland, the nation’s largest producer of apparel, has begun to lose jobs as Guess and other companies move production to low-cost facilities abroad.

All contractors--foreign and domestic--should be subject to inspections by independent monitors, according to the task force. The group plans to urge all U.S. manufacturers and retailers to hire third-party inspectors, sources said.

The task force had previously agreed to recommend that no children younger than 14 be employed in apparel plants abroad.

Among the issues still to be resolved is how to inform the public which companies are complying with the proposed standards.

Some members favor a “no sweat” clothing label designed to assure consumers that the product was made in compliance with the code of conduct. Trade groups representing retailers and manufacturers have opposed labeling, contending that there is no way to ensure that each garment is made in compliance with such standards.

“Some of these sweatshop operators are also counterfeiters,” said Allison Wolf, spokeswoman for the American Apparel Manufacturers Assn. “They could simply copy the label.”

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The apparel group also opposes proposals to establish an international minimum wage rate, contending that U.S. firms should not impose standards in regions with different economic conditions. Advocates of standards contend that the minimum wages of some countries are inadequate or nonexistent. At this point, the task force has not yet agreed to an international “living wage” proposal, sources said.


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