WASHINGTON - A bipartisan group of senators introduced legislation Tuesday aimed at preventing American companies from profiting from the use of foreign sweatshops and other unfair labor practices abroad.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican, joined four Democrats and independent Sen. Bernard Sanders of Vermont in sponsoring a bill that would allow U.S. firms to sue competitors that they believe are selling imported products made in overseas sweatshops.
Stitching area (Photo/Mother Jones)
"Believe it or not, ladies and gentlemen, there's a world out there where people are exploited - sometimes literally to the point of death - just to make a buck," Graham said at a news conference in the Capitol.
Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., said free-trade agreements between the United States and other countries have fueled the growth of sweatshop production in recent years.
Dorgan cited China and Jordan as major offenders, saying their factories employ workers as young as 5, often in long shifts, brutal conditions and for little or no pay. In many cases, he said, the foreign countries violate their own poorly enforced labor laws.
"There is no reason for the United States of America to allow the sale of products made in slave-labor-like conditions," Dorgan said.
About 250 million children worldwide, ages 14 or younger, work in factories, many in deplorable conditions, he said.
If it becomes law, the legislation could have a major impact on large U.S. retailers such as Wal-Mart and Target, which contract with foreign firms to produce many of the products they sell to Americans.
Dorgan said Wal-Mart and Target have taken steps to reduce their sale of such goods. In one instance, he said, Wal-Mart canceled its contract with a Chinese factory after delivering three warnings that went unheeded.
The Chinese firm then hired a consultant who helped it secure phony documents that falsely showed that the company had eliminated its sweatshops.
Dorgan moved similar legislation last year, but it drew only five co-sponsors, all Democrats, and died in the Republican-controlled Congress.
Dorgan predicted that with Graham on board - and Democrats now running Congress - the measure has better prospects.
"This is a pretty weighty co-sponsor," Dorgan said of Graham as the two senators laughed. "I mean, we're not talking about an insignificant co-sponsor. This is a big deal to us!"
Democratic Sens. Sherrod Brown of Ohio, Robert Byrd of West Virginia and Russ Feingold of Wisconsin joined Dorgan, Graham and Sanders in backing the bill.
The measure would allow an American firm to file a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission alleging that one of its competitors was selling products made in sweatshops.
If the FTC determined that the complaint was valid, the agency would issue an order prohibiting the import of products from the offending foreign firm. U.S. customs agents would enforce the law, assessing violators fines of $10,000 per offense.
American companies also could sue competitors in federal court to seek injunctions blocking such imports, along with punitive damages.
Graham said many U.S. firms are trying to foster fair labor practices abroad but those that encourage sweatshop production should be punished.
"If you're a business person engaged in exploiting people to build up market share, I hope you get fined, I hope you get sued," Graham said. "That's not the way to build up an economy. That's not the way to have global trade, and it's not in the best interests of America."
© 2007 McClatchy Washington Bureau and wire service sources