By Adam Welsch
Periodically, the news media expose unethical labor practices being used in factories throughout the world. Sometimes the problems involve child labor; other times, unsafe working conditions, unreasonably long hours or low pay, or even the physical abuse of workers. Often, such stories are publicized because they involve world-renowned companies, celebrity owners, or well-known endorsers. However, for every case connected to a famous brand or entertainer, there are likely a multitude of others involving companies and products of which most people have never heard. And while such cases today, more often than not, occur in less-developed nations, we shouldn’t forget that unsafe factory conditions, as exemplified by the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire of 1911, were common in the United States until the early part of the 20th century. And unfortunately, sweatshops can still be found in America today.
Manufacturers and retailers now understand that it’s in their best interests to try to ensure that the products they sell are made responsibly. Most large retailers now make regular inspections of factories a requirement in their agreements with suppliers. These audits involve physical inspections of facilities and detailed reviews of records to ensure that certain working-condition standards are being met.
But how can consumers find out which standards are being followed in these factories, and then make sense of the endless number of them?
Fortunately, in the world of apparel manufacturing in general, and intimate-apparel manufacturing in particular, there’s now an organization that has established one global working-conditions standard. It provides some assurance to the concerned consumer that the clothes she’s buying were made in a responsible manner, by workers who weren’t subjected to unsafe, abusive, or illegal working conditions.
Worldwide Responsible Accredited Production (formerly known as Worldwide Responsible Apparel Production), or WRAP, is a non-profit that was founded by members of the global apparel industry to monitor the working conditions in apparel factories around the world. To ensure that it maintains its objectivity, WRAP’s charter requires that a majority of its board members come from areas outside of the apparel industry. In recent years its reputation has grown to such an extent that many retailers now accept WRAP’s certification, in lieu of their own, to ensure that their suppliers are abiding by responsible labor practices.
So what are the standards upon which WRAP insists? According to the 2008 edition of WRAP’s Production Facility Handbook, the core principles include:
- Compliance with Laws and Workplace Regulations
Manufacturers must comply with the laws and regulations of the locales in which they conduct business.
- Prohibition of Forced Labor
Manufacturers must not use involuntary or forced labor – indentured, bonded, or otherwise – in the production of their goods.
- Prohibition of Child Labor
Manufacturers must not hire anyone who’s under the age of fourteen, who’s of an age that interferes with compulsory education, or who’s under whatever minimum working age has been established by local law, whichever is greatest.
- Prohibition of Harassment or Abuse
Manufacturers must provide a work environment that’s free of harassment, abuse, and corporal punishment of any form.
- Compensation and Benefits
Manufacturers must pay at least the minimum, total compensation required by local law, including all mandated wages, allowances, and benefits.
- Hours of Work
The hours worked each day, and the days worked each week, cannot exceed the legal limitations set by the country in which the factory is located. Manufacturers must provide their employees at least one day off in every seven-day period, except as required to meet urgent business needs.
- Prohibition of Discrimination
Manufacturers must employ, pay, promote, and terminate workers on the basis of their abilities to do their jobs, rather than on the basis of their personal characteristics or beliefs.
- Health and Safety
Manufacturers must provide a safe and healthy working environment. Where residential housing is provided for employees, manufacturers must ensure it’s safe and healthy.
- Freedom of Association and Collective Bargaining
Manufacturers must recognize and respect the rights of employees to freely associate and bargain collectively.
Manufacturers must comply with environmental rules, regulations, and standards applicable to their operations, and must observe environmentally-conscious practices at all locations in which they operate.
- Customs Compliance
Manufacturers must comply with applicable customs laws, and in particular, must establish and maintain programs to prevent illegal transshipments of goods.
Manufacturers must maintain facility security procedures that guard against the introduction of non-manifested cargo into outbound shipments (e.g., drugs, explosives, biohazards, and/or any other contraband).
To ensure that that these standards are followed by the companies who adopt them, WRAP requires that factory management create appropriate written policies and internal auditing procedures, and assign compliance responsibilities to specific employees. WRAP also licenses independent auditors to inspect participating facilities. As part of this auditing process, the factories are physically examined to ensure that safe conditions exist; documentation showing the hours worked by all employees, as well as their rates of pay, is reviewed; and employees are randomly selected and privately interviewed to see whether management is complying with all of WRAP’s guidelines. The auditors’ findings are turned over to WRAP which then determines whether compliance certification has been earned. The certification may be of Grade C (valid for six months), Grade B (valid for one year), or Grade A (valid for two years).
So, if you want to ensure that the intimate apparel you buy is made in factories that abide by responsible labor practices, contact the manufacturer who makes it, or the retailer who sells it, and ask whether it was made in a WRAP-certified factory.