Caribbean Basin:

Worker Rights Progress Made, but Enforcement Issues Remain

NSIAD-98-205: Published: Jul 20, 1998. Publicly Released: Jul 20, 1998.

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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO reviewed allegations of worker rights abuses that have persisted in the Caribbean Basin Initiative (CBI) apparel industry, focusing on: (1) whether or not Caribbean Basin countries have made efforts to improve worker rights in the CBI apparel industry; (2) what efforts the private sector has made to address concerns about working conditions in CBI countries; and (3) updated information about U.S. apparel imports from CBI countries.

GAO noted that: (1) the major CBI apparel shipping countries have made efforts to improve worker rights in recent years; however, allegations of worker rights violations persist and enforcement of labor laws generally remains a problem; (2) governments have reformed their labor laws to meet international standards where needed and have been making efforts to upgrade the performance of their labor departments; (3) these reforms have included strengthening and streamlining procedures to form unions and negotiate collective bargaining agreements, establishing labor courts, enhancing the labor inspection and enforcement capabilities of labor ministries, and increasing salaries and training for labor inspectors; (4) all the major CBI apparel shipping countries except Jamaica had Generalized System of Preferences worker rights petitions filed against them over the past decade, and all have been settled with a determination that steps had been taken to improve worker rights; (5) unions and human rights groups claim that labor laws are still not being adequately enforced and worker rights abuses are continuing; (6) there are persistent reports of abuses as well as of workplace health and safety hazards; (7) GAO's work in the Dominican Republic and Guatemala and review of Departments of State and Labor reports indicates that while efforts to improve worker rights are continuing in CBI countries, there is some validity to allegations of worker rights violations; (8) CBI governments' enforcement efforts have been hampered in many cases by limited resources and training, as well as by judicial systems that are generally inefficient and sometimes susceptible to corruption, according to recent State and Labor reports; (9) prompted in part by continuing allegations of labor violations, the private sector has taken steps designed to assure consumers of acceptable working conditions in their industries; (10) industry associations located in El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Costa Rica have established workplace codes of conduct to be voluntarily adopted by their members; (11) in the United States, two organizations have created industrywide workplace codes of conduct that can be voluntarily implemented by companies with domestic and overseas contractors and suppliers; (12) numerous U.S. apparel companies have also established their own individual company codes of conduct for their domestic and overseas operations; and (13) however, across all these private-sector efforts, there is no agreement within the industry on an effective means to monitor and enforce these codes of conduct.

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