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The Honorable Alexis M. Herman

Remarks at The Marymount University Academic Search for Sweatshop Solutions

Reinsch Library Auditorium, Arlington, VA


May 30, 1997

Thank you Sister Gallagher for your gracious introduction, for your friendship, for your leadership of this great institution. And I want to thank all of you--academics, business people, trade unionists, community activists, and students--for being here today and for inviting me to join you.

I feel very much at home here at Marymount today. For me, the road to public service began as part of my Catholic education. At home, in church, in school, later in college classrooms, I learned the lessons of Catholic social teachings. I came to understand that, next to family and faith, the most sacred thing in our lives is the work that we do. Work enables us to support ourselves and our families, our work affirms our humanity, and allows us to make our own unique contribution to the world.

That is why every worker is entitled to a fair wage, safe working conditions, and a sense of dignity and respect. And that is why sweatshops have no place on the American landscape . . . because they rob working people not only of the decent wages and working conditions they deserve, but because they deny the simple human dignity that is the birthright of all of us.

Of course, I know and appreciate that the values I've just expressed are shared by people of goodwill from all walks of life, and every faith, and viewpoint.

It is appropriate that we are holding this symposium here at Marymount. It is a natural fit for an institution whose fashion program is one of the best-- producing young professionals with an eye for the exquisite and a talent to make it real. Coupled with that, is your Center for Ethical Concerns, the cornerstone of your commitment to a values-based education.

But there is something else: the faculty and students here are committed to ending sweatshop labor because intelligent activism is the legacy of this school's founders. For more than 150 years, the Religious of the Sacred Heart of Mary have combined educational excellence with service to others. You are indeed providing the type of education that Pope Pius XI once said, "takes in the whole aggregate of human life, physical and spiritual, intellectual and moral, not with a view to reducing it -- but to elevate, and perfect it."

I appreciate everything that the Marymount community is doing in the struggle against sweatshops--from hosting the Fashion Industry Forum last summer, to conducting ground-breaking consumer polls, which have shown that Americans do care about who makes their clothes and how they are made--and will exercise that concern when they shop.

Just as Marymount and everyone here is doing their part in the struggle against sweatshops, we at the Department of Labor are making every effort to do ours.

As Labor Secretary, I have set five goals for the department: First, to equip every worker with the skills to find and hold a good job; second, to move people from the welfare rolls to payrolls; third, to assure that all workers are economically secure when they retire; fourth, to help workers balance the demands of work and family; and, finally, to guarantee every worker a safe, healthy and fair workplace.

The fight against sweatshops is intrinsic to every one of these goals -- it is not enough simply, however, to guarantee that workplaces are safe and fair. In order to increase incomes; to make work more attractive than welfare; to protect pensions; and to allow every worker to succeed at home as well as on the job--we must relegate sweatshops to the history books, once and for all, now and forever.

So I hope that in the history books our children will read, new chapters, will herald that we did it . . . and we did it together. . . and we did it together through new partnerships . . . and that we created a new American workplace, and a part of that new beginning was started here at Marymount.

During the past four years, the Clinton administration--along with the garment industry, their unions, and others--has worked hard to do just that, to build new partnerships for the future. Our efforts have not gone unnoticed.

In December, our "Eradicating Sweatshops" campaign was recognized by Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government and the Ford Foundation with an Innovations in American Government Award--the highest honor given to government programs that exemplify state-of-the-art public service.

Since then, we have made great strides--and more than a bit of history. Last month, the President accepted the first report from the Apparel Industry Partnership, an unprecedented coalition that has developed an industry code of conduct, company obligations, and principles of independent external monitoring that the participants have committed to implement.

The group is made up of some of the companies that are sponsoring today's event . . . Liz Claiborne, Nicole Miller, Phillips-Van Heusen, Reebok, UNITE. . . as well as others, like Nike, Business for Social Responsibility, the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility, the National Consumers League, and many more.

The Apparel Industry Partnership is continuing its historic effort by establishing an association that will ensure that their codes and monitoring systems become a reality. This is a broad-based group that supports the position that businesses are in business to make a profit. But also that human rights and labor rights must be a part of the basic framework within which all businesses compete.

The Apparel Industry Partnership will significantly reduce the use of sweatshop labor around the world. It will do something equally remarkable as well--give consumers greater confidence in the garments they buy.

This was a giant step. We've made others.

When companies work with and monitor their factories and their contractors, there is greater compliance with law. Today, I am delighted to announce that we have the proof of that. The results of our 1997 San Francisco Garment Industry Survey--jointly conducted by the Department of Labor and the State of California--has found that when companies monitor, overall compliance with minimum wage and overtime laws is 87 percent. That is in marked comparison--a full 20 percent--to only 68 percent for firms that do not monitor their operations and their contractors. The message is clear: monitoring works-- and it works especially well on behalf of American garment workers.

It has been 86 years since the Triangle Shirtwaist fire took the lives of 145 garment workers . . . and nearly 65 years since my predecessor, Frances Perkins, warned that the red bargain dress in the shop window was a sign that sweatshops were back.

Since then, most of us assumed that sweatshops were a relic of a bygone era. But two years ago, we were all shocked when news reports showed, slave-like conditions at a garment factory in El Monte, California. Months later, the spotlight turned to celebrities, who had little idea about how the clothing they designed and sold, was made . . . and by whom.

In this era of concern for civility, decency and family values, sweatshops are repugnant to our moral core. It is wrong to value fashion when we do not value the people who make fashion real. The loveliest dress goes quickly out of style when we are reminded that the woman who made it might not be able to feed herself or her children. Sweatshops reflect too vividly how we as a nation feel about the weakest among us. And it is such an "underground" problem that there is no definitive source on how many sweatshops operate in this country. But we know this: One is one too many.

The American labor movement has known this for more than a century, and I applaud them for their commitment to ending sweatshop labor.

We know that the majority of the business leaders in the garment industry are doing the right thing when it comes to sweatshops. But the bad actions of a few, are tarnishing the good reputations of the others, and undercutting the competitive field of the industry.

As Sister said, I began my career in the South, helping young men who did not understand the nature or culture of work. They could have easily been exploited and their dignity could have easily been diminished in their efforts to find meaningful employment. Years later, I built my own business, so I understand what it means to be competitive in a global market. I know and understand that being fair and being competitive is not mutually exclusive. There isn't a business textbook in the world that supports the idea that sweatshops are a pathway to business prosperity . . . but I can find dozens of textbooks in this very library that supports the theory that the best way to an impressive bottom line is through a solid investment in workers.

In the fight against sweatshops, it is time for all of us . . . businesses and unions from every sector of the garment industry, as well as public officials from both parties, and consumers, religious groups, and every concerned American . . . to move in a new direction and to move forward together. This administration will continue to serve as the catalyst for our collective action.

The Apparel Industry Partnership will only succeed if more manufacturers and retailers join the effort and actively participate. I will work with the Partnership's co-chairs and members to make sure that happens.

In my first month on the job, I have already begun a dialogue with the National Retail Federation and with individual apparel and footwear retailers. I want to work with them so that they can offer consumers garments that can be worn with moral confidence and real pride.

We will explore ways to better engage the retail community in this important effort. And it is my hope that together, we will forge remarkable progress.

I have been impressed with the energy, commitment, creativity and leadership that so many are contributing. They are offering all concerned citizens and groups models to emulate and make their own.

A clear example of this is Archbishop Theodore McCarrick, the chair of the International Policy Committee of the U.S. Catholic Conference. He has created a "No Sweat" Archdiocese at his home base in Newark, New Jersey. In September--just in time for back-to-school--he will launch an "anti-sweatshop" classroom instruction effort for every one of the 188 elementary and high schools in the diocese. The program will go even further and develop criteria and safeguards against the purchase of school uniforms made under sweatshop conditions. Their goal is one that we all share: No child should wear clothes made by workers robbed of their own childhood.

I will be with Archbishop McCarrick when he announces this initiative in Newark, and will work closely with him over the summer, to enlist other religious leaders in replicating this effort.

Another model, the City of Olmstead, Ohio--which passed the first-of-its- kind resolution against the procurement of sweatshop-made uniforms for their police, fire and sanitation departments. This is an excellent example of community innovation that can make a significant impact. I am pleased that the U.S. Conference of Mayors will use the Olmstead resolution, as a model at their convention next month, and I look forward to working with other mayors across the country on similar efforts.

And I will continue to seek out innovative ideas and programs to replicate, and new partnerships to build on. One of the very best is the Garment 2000 learning factory in San Francisco. The commitment--by industry, unions, workers, the educational community, and local governments--to this facility, which provides new opportunities for garment workers through training and education, is exactly the kind of cooperative action we need to combat sweatshops. That is why I am taking the opportunity today to announce a Department of Labor grant of $200,000 to Garment 2000, so that this coalition can continue and expand its training and technical assistance programs. I call on other garment industry centers and facilities to develop the same type of innovative strategy.

My desire to build strong partnerships in this effort is not limited to our own borders, because as we all know, this problem is not limited to our own borders.

We must build a truly international partnership. Fifty percent of the garments we buy are imported, so we must have all the nations of the world actively involved. There are a few important steps I will take--with your help--to achieve global change:

At the President's request, I will host a meeting this year with the Central American labor ministers, to discuss how we can support the effort to safeguard working conditions, including through the Apparel Industry Partnership.

Last week, my European Union counterpart and I agreed on the importance of a meeting involving members of the Apparel Industry Partnership, employers, unions and other organizations from Europe.

And just a few days ago, President Clinton raised the importance of the Apparel Industry Partnership with leaders from the European Union--citing it as a model for progress.

In addition, we will continue our efforts to report on international child labor issues. We have made extraordinary progress together in placing the outrage of child exploitation onto the international agenda. We are beginning to make tremendous headway.

This summer, we will publish a report on child labor and codes of conduct in the footwear industry. The report will also include information and analysis on the use of consumer labels to end child labor around the world.

I have always believed that nothing is impossible if you recall all of your past impossibilities. I feel that way today. Putting an end to sweatshops, finally and completely, will not be easy--but it will not be impossible. Your workshops and discussions this morning--and the one you will continue this afternoon--move us even closer to a solution.

As your Secretary of Labor, it is my honor and my obligation to work for an America where everyone can find useful, decent and honest work with fair wages. An America that offers opportunity for our youngest people and security for our older people. An America where work is honored and justice is done.

Together, we can make sure that this vision of an America that works for all working people--including garment workers--will not be a dream deferred.

Thank you for all the good work that you do. And thank you for allowing me to be a part of this very special historic day.

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