The Board of Directors of the International Labor Rights Fund voted this week to endorse the agreement completed one month ago that establishes a Fair Labor Association to oversee garment and footwear production around the world for the U.S. market. The agreement was the product of intense negotiations involving two trade unions, five human rights, labor rights, consumer and religious organizations and ten apparel and footwear producers over the past 27 months. It establishes a Workplace code of conduct and principles of internal and independent external monitoring of factory conditions throughout the global chain of production for participating firms, and sets up an association to certify monitors, oversee responses to complaints about infractions of these standards, and communicate to consumers regarding the level of compliance of each of the participating companies.
The vote by the ILRF Board was very close, reflecting the experimental nature of the final agreement. In the end, the U.S. labor unions who had participated in the negotiations decided not to join the association or to endorse the agreement at this time, and their representatives on the ILRF Board voted against ILRF endorsement as well. However, the majority of ILRF board members, while respecting the reluctance of the labor group, voted that the ILRF should engage in the association in order to help assure that a pro-labor perspective is represented in its establishment and governance, in the hope that if it succeeds, the U.S. labor unions may be able to reconsider their initial resistance. In discussing the issue, former Labor Secretary Ray Marshall, President of the ILRF Board, encouraged the board "not to let the perfect be the enemy of the good."
The success of this massive project will depend on broad social participation and criticsm, both from within and outside the formal process. Pharis Harvey, executive director of the Fund, expressed the hope that those groups in the United States who have been critical of the AIP agreement will continue to hold it accountable for contributing to its stated goal, eliminating sweatshop conditions for workers around the world who make the clothing and shoes sold in this country. "This project formalizes broad social participation in improving workplace conditions in countries where neither law nor collective agreements are effective. We welcome the intense scrutiny of NGOs and trade unions everywhere to help this process make a difference for workers."