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Codes of Conduct and Carmelita: The Real Gap

by Gerard GreenfieldAsia Monitor Resource Center
September 22nd, 1997

During a two-week period in September 1996, U.S. Department of Labor Officials travelled to six countries -- the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, India and the Philippines -- as part of a major study of codes of conduct in the garment industry. The outcome was a report, The Apparel Industry and Codes of Conduct: A Solution to the International Child Labor Problem? (U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of International Labor Affairs, 1996).

In the Philippines they visited 18 factories, including V.T. Fashion. V.T. Fashion is a Taiwanese invested garment factory located in the Cavite Export Processing Zone in Rosario. The company produced skirts, jackets, dresses, short pants, vests, and blouses for the Gap, Guess, Jones New York, Eddie Bauer, May Co, Macy, Liz Claiborne, Ellen Tracy, Head, Benetton, Ruff Hewn, LeQ, Chachi, Ralph Lauren, and Banana Republic. Some of these companies have codes of conduct or codes of practice, and recently signed the Clinton Task Force NO SWEAT agreement in Washington.

It is incredible that so much publicity has surrounded the empty promises and false commitments of these companies to workers' human rights, and so little attention has been given to the death of Carmelita Alonzo, a sewing machine operator at V.T. Fashion. Of course the failure of the visiting U.S. Labor Department officials to notice the extremely bad working conditions at V.T. Fashion will be excused by the fact that they were only concerned with child labour. The terrible conditions faced by adult workers was ignored and workers like Carmelita, a 35 year old mother of five, were left to sweat.

The fact that the large delegation of officials from the Trade Union Congress of the Philippines (TUCP) who were "consulted" also failed to raise even the most basic problems concerning wages and working conditions at V.T. Fashion and other factories will also be excused on the basis that they too were only concerned with child labour. The reality is that the pro-government TUCP and the visiting US delegation failed to identify the abusive labour practices which only a few months later led to Carmelita's death.

Carmelita died on March 8, 1997, International Women's Day, at the Andres Bonifacio Memorial Hospital in Cavite, the Philippines, after 11 days in hospital. According to a statement released by her co-workers at V.T. Fashion, "Carmelita was killed by her 14 hour workday every day plus overtime of eight hours every Sunday." (Philippine News Features, March 19, 1997).

The workers denounced the system of quotas set by the company which forced them to work 12 to 14 hours per day. According to the Workers Assistance Center in Rosario, Carmelita had died because of the strict regime in V.T. Fashion and its sister company, All Asia Garment Industries, which forces workers to obey a compulsory 14 hour shift.

Until V.T. Fashion burned down in a fire on April 1, 1997, there are 1046 workers at, 90% are women workers aged between 17-30. Workers received only 155 pesos (US$5.96) as the daily minimum wage and are subjected to overtime. This wage is not enough to meet the living costs of workers and rising prices. Workers were made to work from 7 am to 9 pm during weekdays, 7 am to 7 pm on Saturdays and 6 am to 2 pm on Sundays. Rest periods were usually an hour during lunch time and 30 minute in the afternoon. Less than half of the workers were regular workers. Most were employed on 3 to 4 month "apprenticeship" contracts or as contractual workers with employment contracts of only 5 months. Others were employed on 6 month contracts.

The company subcontracted work to some companies inside and outside the Export Processing Zone. During peak production work was subcontracted out to other companies and workers were hired for 3 to 6 months as apprentices and contractual workers. The company has also established a new company called EQ. Workers on 6 month contracts at V.T. Fashion will be transferred to EQ when their contracts expire.

This is despite the fact that the US Labor Department report, The Apparel Industry and Codes of Conduct, asserts: "Liz Claiborne stated that it discourages subcontracting since it creates special problems with regard to the application of Liz Claiborne's code."(43)

In January 1997 the company was busy hiring another group of contractual workers since it terminated the services of those whose 5 month contracts have expired. The management made sure that contractual workers did not reach 6 months of employment and always made sure that there was a new group of workers ready to replace those whose contracts expired.

Contractual workers had no sick leave with pay or other benefits. The management immediately fired women workers who became pregnant. Of course, there was no union at V.T. Fashion.

When the factory burned down in an accidental fire in April, all of the workers were easily dismissed with wages or compensation because they were all contractual workers. But workers at All Asia Garment Industries and other garment factories in the Cavite EPZ continue to suffer the same conditions that led to Carmelita's death.

The V.T. Fashion workers never knew of any codes of conduct, even though the U.S. Labor Department report states that: "Liz Claiborne, which has translated its Standards of Engagement into more than ten different languages, requires all contractors to post the standards in the local language in common areas, such as cafeterias or locker rooms, of every facility where Liz Claiborne products are made."(47) And there was no "constant monitoring" of compliance with the code by the Gap, or "spot checks" by Liz Claiborne staff as the report, The Apparel Industry and Codes of Conduct claims.(54-55)

The report also claims that:"The Gap requires that its code, which has been translated into 39 languages, be posted in each contractor facility." (47) Yet when representatives of the Gap, including the manager for vendor compliance based in Hong Kong, Geoffrey Hantover, met with workers' representatives in Cavite in May, they said that the Gap's Code of Conduct was only translated into a Filipino version on April 21, 1997: 44 days after Carmelita's death.

The Gap representatives then added that since V.T. Fashion produced "very little for Gap", they would not take any responsibility at all for the conditions which led to Carmelita's death.

Here lies the real Gap: between the empty rhetoric of codes of conduct and NO SWEAT agreements, and the brutal working conditions under which workers are exploited.

Codes of Conduct and Carmelita (Part 2)

The fact that V.T. Fashion was one of the factories visited as part of the study, The Apparel Industry and Codes of Conduct, by the U.S. Labor Department has important implications for the Clinton Taskforce on Sweatshops and the "No Sweat" agreement. At the very least it raises serious questions about monitoring.

1. Liz Claiborne was one of the companies which signed the NO SWEAT Agreement in Washington earlier this year, and the Gap continues to be praised for "doing the right thing" by enforcing its code of conduct. In The Apparel Industry and Codes of Conduct, Liz Claiborne states that their "standards of engagement" policy on human rights are posted in their suppliers' factories. The Gap said the same of their code of conduct. The fact is that no such codes or standards were posted in V.T. Fashion which was producing both of these brands. Two questions, then:

(i) Why should we believe these companies now that they've signed the NO SWEAT agreement?

(ii) Why wasn't the absence of codes or standards in the factory noted by the visiting U.S.Labor officials in their visit to V.T. Fashion?

2. Representatives of the Gap have stated very clearly that their code of conduct became available in Filipino (Tagalog) on April 21, 1997. This is seven months AFTER the visit by U.S.Labor officials to the Philippines to prepare the report. So why was the absence of the code in the local language not mentioned in the report?

3. When they visited V.T. Fashion, why couldn't they identify problems concerning working hours, quotas, overtime, short-term contracting and dismissal? Did they examine employment contracts, work schedules or pay stubs? Did they even talk to workers?

4. Given this case, how will monitoring be any different under the NO SWEAT agreement? There are two points in this regard:

(i) The delegation visited and checked V.T. Fashion and found none of the conditions which characterise the abusive working conditions which led to Carmelita's death.

(ii) Both Liz Claiborne and the Gap claimed that they were ALREADY monitoring labour practices and compliance to their standards. If this is true, then this monitoring failed.

So how are things going to be any different?

5. Will companies who have signed on to the NO SWEAT agreement be able to deny responsibility for abusive labour practices if only a "small part" of the goods produced at a factory are their own brand names. This is what the Gap representative said in the case of Carmelita Alonzo's death. Are we now talking about percentages of workers' lives?

For more information, contact the:

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