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Investors Urge Action Against Sweatshops

Apparel: Group mounts campaign to pressure clothing industry as labor chief backs Smithsonian exhibit.

September 23, 1997|GEORGE WHITE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Joined by Labor Secretary Alexis Herman, a group representing about 400 "socially responsible" investment firms on Monday vowed to use their clout to pressure clothing manufacturers and retailers into taking a tougher stand against apparel industry sweatshops.

The Social Investment Forum, a coalition of firms controlling $639 billion in investments, said its members will invest in stocks of profitable firms that are leaders in the sweatshop fight, or sell stock of companies with poor labor records. The group said it wants to encourage other investment companies and organizations to join labor and consumer groups in pressuring retailers and manufacturers to do more to curb sweatshop practices.

Meanwhile, Herman urged retailers and apparel manufacturers to cooperate with the Smithsonian Institution's plans to re-create for an exhibition the slave-like conditions found in 1995 at the infamous El Monte sweatshop; apparel and retail trade groups oppose such an exhibit.

"The Smithsonian is in the planning stages of this exhibition . . . and these groups are talking about the soup before it's actually cooked," said Herman.

The Social Investment Forum--which includes firms such as Calvert Group and Franklin Research & Development Corp.--also urged the Securities and Exchange Commission to change a ruling that lets companies prevent shareholder votes on employment-related issues.

"This constraint on shareholder democracy effectively prohibits our ability to file shareholder resolutions on sweatshop-related concerns," the group said in a statement.

The investor group also expressed support for the Apparel Industry Partnership, a White House task force that is developing a voluntary anti-sweatshop corporate code of conduct. The task force is expected to make recommendations on workplace monitoring as well as methods for informing the public about which companies are volunteering to comply with the code. Some task force members favor a "No Sweat" clothing tag.

However, the National Retail Federation and the American Apparel Manufacturers Assn.--which have refused to join the task force--oppose such labeling because tags can be counterfeited. They also oppose the appointment of independent monitors, contending that their members already have monitoring programs.

Those two trade groups, as well as the California Fashion Assn., which represents Southland apparel manufacturers and is not a task force member, are also strongly opposed to the Smithsonian's exhibit plans.

The trade groups have complained that the plan is unbalanced and negative. Pam Rucker, spokeswoman for the National Retail Federation, said her group was asked to submit a 200-word statement on retail efforts to eliminate sweatshops: "To reduce retail industry efforts to a 200-word statement is ridiculous."

The fight expanded to Capitol Hill as the Smithsonian on Friday received support from 45 Democrats in Congress who signed a strongly worded letter of support for the exhibition, scheduled to open in Washington on April 15.

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* NIKE DECISION

Apparel maker cuts ties with four firms on labor issues. D20

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