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The Sweatshop Code

America didn't invent sweatshops in other countries. (Innocents abroad on package tours don't usually ask the wages and hours of the smiling child at the loom in the factory where "we got a great bargain on a rug.") But, as case after case attests, American companies have been profiting from abysmally low wages, long working hours, and child labor overseas.

Now President Clinton is asking United States companies to adhere to a voluntary code of conduct to improve working conditions in the apparel industry. The code was devised by a task force representing human rights, religion, labor, and industry.

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"We know that human rights and labor rights must be a part of the basic framework within which all businesses honorably compete," Mr. Clinton said.

The president will have to ensure that the code does not simply give "a Good Housekeeping seal of approval to kinder, gentler sweatshops," in the words of a critic wanting higher standards. The announced code includes no use of forced labor; no employment of workers younger than 15; a guaranteed minimum wage linked to the standards in each country; at least one day off in a workweek of no more than 60 hours; and inspection of facilities by outside monitors.

Companies adhering to the code, and a few big ones have already signed up, could use a "no sweatshops" label on their clothing - a clue for consumers who want to vote with their purchases.

Remember the impact that choosy American investors had in withdrawing business from apartheid-era South Africa?

The climate for change also benefited from the voluntary adherence to workplace principles by American companies that continued operations there.

Improvement for all workers could begin as some gain better lives through US firms' worldwide adherence to the new code.

Much will depend on companies' responsible conduct with or without a code, with or without the promised independent inspection.

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What happens now will tell whether the code agreement is a "monumental achievement," as it was called by the National Consumers League, an organization set up to fight sweatshops a century ago.

Meanwhile, there's realism about the code in the words of Gene Sperling, chairman of the president's National Economic Council:

"You could always argue this glass is half empty, or this glass is half full, but the fact is there wasn't any glass before."

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