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Sweatshop Report Paints Bleak Picture

Conditions in apparel factories "sub-par"

By Robert K. Silverman, Crimson Staff Writer

The University released a major report examining worldwide labor conditions in the apparel industry Friday, and the findings are bleak.

Harvard, along with four other universities, hired a team of consultants to visit seven countries to evaluate whether manufacturers of college apparel abide by local labor laws, comply with established industry codes of conduct and meet standards to ensure a fair and safe environment for workers.

"Sub-par working conditions exist in apparel factories in all of the countries visited," the report concluded.

The consultants found widespread health and safety violations, illegal labor practices, a lack of freedom of association and instances of workplace discrimination.

The report also stressed the difficulty of monitoring the factories themselves.

The team of consultants, including the Business for Social Responsibility (BSR) Education Fund, the Investor Responsibility Research Center (IRRC) and Dara O'Rourke, an expert in worldwide labor standards, gathered information by speaking with government officials, trade unions, non-governmental organizations, factory owners and other industry stakeholders in each country to identify problems in the workplace. They then conducted factory inspections, two per country, to test the reality of these problems.

"We got a general, perhaps theoretical picture of what the problems are [from interviewing stakeholders], and in many cases that information was corroborated by the factory visits," said Meg Voorhes, director of the social issues service at IRRC.

The consultants hired international business firm PricewaterhouseCoopers to conduct the factory inspections, a decision that has sparked much controversy.

Last week O'Rourke published a critique of Pricewaterhouse's inspection methods, concluding that they were "significantly flawed."

Pricewaterhouse officials denied the charges.

Randal H. Rankin, Pricewaterhouse's global leader of the contractor compliance practice, said O'Rourke's report was based on incomplete information and "contains inaccuracies and inconsistencies."

But at points, the report itself is critical of Pricewaterhouse. The several-hundred page document chides the corporation for not effectively consulting workers, for overlooking significant violations and for favoring the testimony of factory management.

"We had all observed various shortcoming in the monitoring protocol," Voorhes said, although she said her final assessment was not as harsh as O'Rourke's. "It's not a perfect monitoring organization, but it is improving."

The consultants visited and inspected factories in China, El Salvador, Mexico, Pakistan, South Korea, Thailand and the United States--regions responsible for producing much of the nation's college-licensed apparel.

Licensees participating in the process include Champion and Gear for Sports, the two largest suppliers of Harvard apparel, as well as Adidas-Salomon, Jansport, Nike and others.

University Attorney Allan A. Ryan Jr., Harvard's point person on sweatshop policy, said the entire report will be available on the Internet for the community to read and comment on.

He said he welcomes the input of students, faculty and alumni.

"[We're looking for] good, lively, thoughtful discussion that really brings to the fore all of the many ideas and thoughts for action that this community can offer," he said. "It's an important issue, a complex issue, and there are no easy answers. We really need the best that Harvard has to offer."

--Staff writer Robert K. Silverman can be reached at rsilverm@fas.harvard.edu.

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