Checking on Sweatshops

How does the Gap know if its clothes are made by child laborers?

A report published Sunday in the Observer found that an Indian factory making embroidered blouses for Gap Kids employed workers as young as 10, in violation of international labor standards. The retailer, which regularly monitors the factories producing its garments, issued a statement saying that it has stopped the work order and will not be selling those shirts in its stores. How often do companies check for labor violations in overseas factories?

Anywhere from once every six months to once every several years. During each of these “social audits,” inspectors tour the factory, look at records, talk to employees, and meet with management over a couple of days. Companies rarely release any findings to the public. But they do use audits to learn whether manufacturers are complying with the code of conduct that each of the brands establish for their suppliers; a lack of worker rights or safe working conditions could tarnish a corporation’s image and hurt business.

Depending on the violation found, companies may work with factories to improve conditions or, in extreme situations, end the relationship. Human rights advocates argue, however, that the inspections are not set up to catch all of the violations: A report from the Ethical Trade Initiative found that most companies announce visits ahead of time. Only a quarter of Wal-Mart’s inspections in 2006 were surprise visits, for instance. The advance notice gives factories time to coach workers for inspectors’ questions and send their child laborers home. In China, some consultants will ready a factory for inspections for a fee of $5,000 by whipping up a batch of fake records, among other things.

These monitoring programs got their start in the early to mid-1990s among companies in the apparel, footwear, and toys industries. Globalization meant low-skill manufacturing jobs were moving to countries with loose labor standards, and retail brands eventually found themselves the target of anti-sweatshop campaigns. One high-profile case turned former talk-show host Kathie Lee Gifford into a temporary pariah when an activist group said her clothing line was being made by Honduran adolescents working 20-hour days. Today, companies like the Gap, Nike, and Levi Strauss are considered industry leaders when it comes to workers’ conditions. The Gap has a relatively large team of about 90 employees who oversaw 4,438 inspections in 2,118 factories in 2006.

But the brands and their critics generally agree that periodic visits don’t do enough.

A forthcoming study from the Worker Rights Consortium examined 50 factories serving these top companies and found major problems at each location, like verbal abuse, lack of access to drinking water and bathrooms, and the inability for workers to organize. In 84 percent of those factories, workers didn’t understand how their salary was determined. Employees reported long shifts and regular overtime; in Kenya, employees worked an average of 39 extra hours a week.

Got a question about today’s news? Ask the Explainer.

Explainer thanks Charles Kernaghan of National Labor Committee, Mark Levinson of Unite Here, Scott Nova of Worker Rights Consortium, Eric Olson of Business for Social Responsibility, and Dan Viederman of Verité.