No Sweat

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WASHINGTON, D.C.: In a bid to clean up their image and improve conditions in their overseas factories, a group of U.S. apparel manufacturers agreed Monday to abide by a set of voluntary labor standards. To qualify, companies must provide: the minimum wage as established by the individual countries; a 48-hour work week with a maximum of 12 hours of overtime; anti-harassment and anti-abuse codes; and a requirement that workers be at least 14 years old. The agreement was quickly criticized by some human rights groups as too small of a first effort. Their biggest concern was that the companies refused to pay "a living wage," since the minimum wage in countries like Haiti and Indonesia is insufficient to support a family on. What that amounts to is awarding Nike, for example, a seal of approval in the form of a "no sweatshop" label, while it continues to pay 20 cents an hour to its workers in Vietnam. Meanwhile, many foreign governments see the movement as thinly disguised protectionism fostered by U.S. labor unions to protect jobs at home by forcing up the cost of overseas work, notes TIME's Margot Hornblower. Still, the deal represents an important first step. Participating companies, which include LL Bean, Nike, Reebok, Liz Claiborne and Nicole Miller, have for the first time agreed to allow outside international accounting firms such as Price Waterhouse to monitor conditions in their overseas operations. And workers in developing countries won one provision that even U.S. workers don't have: a maximum 60-hour work week.