Codes of Conduct in the U.S. Apparel Industry
There is a growing awareness among many of the largest U.S. apparel importers about the conditions under which apparel sold in the U.S. market is produced. This is a major change from just a few years ago, when importers were more inclined to avoid any responsibility on this matter. Codes of conduct are increasingly common in the U.S. apparel industry. This is a positive sign.
Thirty-six of the 42 U.S. retailers and apparel manufacturers that provided reportable responses to the survey conducted for this study indicated that they have adopted a policy specifically prohibiting the use of child labor in the manufacture of goods they import from abroad. These policies take different forms - codes of conduct, statements of company policy in the form of letters to suppliers, provisions in purchase orders or letters of credit, compliance certificates.
There are marked differences in the codes of conduct prohibiting the use of child labor among the U.S. companies responding to the survey. A primary difference with regard to such codes is their definition of child labor.
In some cases, companies' policies prohibiting child labor in the production of their goods do not contain any definition of child labor.
A proliferation of codes, with differences in some key areas (e.g., the definition of child labor), leads to some uncertainty. This is particularly a problem where foreign contractors produce garments for more than one U.S. importer. During field visits conducted as part of this study, Department of Labor officials were informed by foreign suppliers that the variety of codes can cause confusion. Some multi-customer suppliers said that to address this problem they are coming up with their own codes of conduct.
It also emerged from the field visits that there is confusion among suppliers about whether national labor law or a company's policy (as set out in a code of conduct) should be applied. This is highlighted in cases where the company standard is more rigorous than national law. The problem is compounded by the fact that in some instances, owners and plant managers are not familiar with the national law on child labor, despite the fact that their customers' codes stipulate they must follow national law.