What’s Wrong with the FLA?

So what is the Fair Labor Association (FLA) and what is wrong with it?

The Fair Labor Association (FLA) is a factory monitoring organization that was created by multinational apparel companies and a handful of non-profit organizations in the late 1990’s. It grew out of something called the Apparel Industry Partnership, convened by President Clinton in the wake of a series of sweatshop scandals involving major apparel companies such as Nike and Liz Claiborne. Behind the backs of student activists, the FLA signed up dozens of universities to its program in 1999 in an attempt to squash student protests on the sweatshop issue. The FLA is now the primary organization other than the Worker Rights Consortium (WRC) to which colleges and universities belong in order to enforce their anti-sweatshop policies.

How does the FLA function? The FLA’s primary monitoring scheme involves certifying companies as compliant with the FLA’s monitoring standards. This “accreditation” consists of internal factory monitoring by each company’s own staff, and then monitoring a sampling of each company’s suppliers (5% per year) by one of the FLA’s hired monitoring firms. There are currently 20 FLA member corporations as well as numerous university licensees, who are required by universities to participate in the FLA’s program. Member companies are welcome to advertise their participation in the FLA in the marketing of their clothing. The FLA is governed by a 15 member board consisting of representatives of major apparel companies such as Nike, Adidas, and Reebok, as well as NGO’s, and universities.

Since its creation, USAS as well as numerous other worker rights organizations have been extremely critical of the FLA. Indeed, the only union member of its governing board – UNITE – quit the organization more than five years ago in protest of the FLA’s policies. Despite some recent changes in its structure and practice, USAS continues to believe that the FLA is a deeply problematic organization. The following are several concerns about the FLA held by USAS and other labor rights advocates:

The FLA is beholden to powerful multinational apparel companies. The FLA was created by and to a great extent continues to be controlled by some of the world’s most powerful apparel companies – the very same companies whose sweatshop labor practices inspired the need for campus anti-sweatshop policies in the first place. The FLA’s own website boasts that its 20 full member companies have combined annual sales of more that $30 billion. Six apparel industry representatives sit on the FLA’s board of directors, any three of whom could veto most major FLA organizational decisions – such as whether or not a company can remain a member – through the FLA’s supermajority voting system. The FLA’s primary paymaster remains apparel companies and most FLA monitoring is performed by for-profit monitoring firms. USAS and many others have denounced this sort of self-policing arrangement as “the fox guarding the chicken coup”. USAS believes that we cannot trust the apparel industry to police itself. True accountability can come only from independent monitoring by organizations who are not beholden – either financially or through decision making structures – to the companies being investigated. It is for this reason that USAS supports the Worker Rights Consortium as a truly independent alternative to company-controlled code of conduct enforcement.

The FLA does not provide a meaningful role for workers. Workers know better than anyone what problems exist in a factory and what violations matter most. But in the climate of fear that pervades apparel sweatshops, workers experience a very real threat of reprisal for speaking out. For this reason, it is virtually impossible to get candid information about company practices from workers when management knows who is being interviewed: it is far better to conduct interviews outside of the factory, in locations chosen by workers (as the WRC does). Yet when the FLA monitors a factory, its representative typically only interview workers inside the factory premises, where management has full knowledge that the interviews are taking place. This practice denies workers a meaningful role in a process supposedly designed to benefit them.

The FLA does not produce credible, verifiable information about working conditions. Sweatshop conditions fester in conditions of secrecy, where employers can abuse workers’ rights without fear of others finding out. For this reason, USAS has long advocated the need to shine a light on sweatshop practices through public disclosure of factory locations and working conditions. In response to criticism by USAS and others about the FLA’s secretive approach to factory monitoring, the FLA has developed a new transparency process, and publicized it widely. But looks are deceiving. While the FLA’s transparency program does disclose some information about the factories it audits, it conceals the most important piece of information that would be needed to make its reports credible: the name of the factory investigated. Without this information, there is no basis for workers or others to verify the FLA’s bold claims. Indeed, given the serious problems with the FLA’s investigatory approach that have come to light around individual cases, there are ample grounds to doubt the veracity of the claims being made.

The FLA has shown itself to be weak-kneed in standing up to worker abuse. On occasion after occasion, USAS and worker rights groups have appealed to the FLA for help in addressing major rights violations. And time and time again, USAS has been disappointed by the FLA’s failure to act promptly and meaningfully to address the problems. An illustrative case is that of Gildan Activewear, a major collegiate t-shirt manufacturer. In mid 2004, in response to a complaint from workers, both the WRC and FLA conducted investigations and found that Gildan had illegally fired dozens of workers who had attempted to organize an independent trade union. In July 2004, in the midst of joint negotiations with the WRC and FLA to correct violations, Gildan suddenly announced it was shutting down the El Progreso factory and firing all 1600 of the plant’s workers – a transparent and brazen act to end the investigations and the effort by workers to organize for better conditions. The FLA put Gildan on “special review”, but instead of requiring Gildan to provide employment to the illegally terminated workers – the only action that would sufficiently rectify the illegal mass termination caused by the closure – the FLA asked Gildan to correct misrepresentations of the FLA on its website and in the media, and take several other measures. Then, when Gildan failed to meet even these meaningless requirements, the FLA still let Gildan stay on as a full member anyway. USAS believes that the FLA, as an agent of universities, should not be looking the other way or papering over abusive labor practices.

For more information on the FLA’s failure to address worker rights abuses, see FLA Watch’s Chronology of Failure.

The FLA denies a meaningful role for students. The vast majority of FLA affiliated companies are college and university licensees. One of the reasons that USAS has been critical of the FLA is that the FLA launched a campaign to enforce campus anti-sweatshop policies behind the backs of the very students who pushed to establish these policies in the first place. In the late 1990’s, as students were campaigning to win codes of conduct on their campuses, the FLA quietly sent letters to universities offering to address the sweatshop problem by allowing them to join the FLA. This initial salvo began a long pattern of working closely with companies and some administrations, but refusing the campus anti-sweatshop movement a meaningful role. To this day, the FLA’s decision-making structure continues to exclude students. The WRC, in contrast, has built student participation into its central governing structure.

What is USAS’s position on joint WRC-FLA membership? USAS is deeply troubled by the FLA’s approach to code of conduct enforcement. Behind the FLA’s slick and progressive presentation is a very business-as-usual, company controlled process, whose approach treats worker rights abuses fundamentally as a public relations problem, rather than as something in need of urgent action. USAS believes the Worker Rights Consortium is a far superior and far more effective organization for schools to join. For all of these reasons, USAS believes that schools should ideally maintain sole membership with the WRC and refrain from joining, and lending their credibility to, the FLA and its corporate members.