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Migrant Worker Protection Behind ‘Enhanced’ Industry Commitment

The American Apparel & Footwear Association (AAFA) and the Fair Labor Association (FLA) linked arms Tuesday to relaunch and bolster their commitment to responsible recruitment, an “enhanced and proactive” effort to tackle potential forced labor risks for migrant workers who seek employment in the apparel, footwear, and travel goods sectors overseas.

Launched in 2018, the commitment aimed to rally the fashion industry around a “clear and resolute” promise to create conditions where foreign migrant workers, who are highly vulnerable to exploitation, do not pay recruitment fees, are able to retain control of their travel documents and have full freedom of movement, and are informed of the basic terms of their employment before entering their positions.

But while dozens of household names, including Adidas, Levi Strauss, Nike, Shein, Calvin Klein parent PVH Corp. and The North Face owner VF Corp., have taken on the challenge, adoption has been patchy, according to KnowTheChain. In 2021, the forced-labor benchmark found that only 14 of the 22 largest signatories, or 64 percent, integrated the commitment into their supply chain standards. Of those, just half disclosed evidence of implementing the policy in their supply chains.

It praised, however, companies such as Adidas, which engaged with agencies across Taiwan, Thailand, Philippines, and Vietnam as part of its work on recruitment fees; Asics, which introduced a migrant-worker-specific grievance mechanism and mapped its first-tier migrant workforce; Lululemon, which disclosed that it has been working with its suppliers in Taiwan to implement its no worker-paid fee programs; and PVH Corp., which changed its onboarding process to include interviews with migrant workers to determine whether fees were paid.

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The new “enhanced” commitment, the AAFA and FLA said, builds on the learnings of the past five years, with additional stipulations for those who take it on.

Signatories, the trade group and multistakeholder organization said, must now pledge to promote environments where workers receive “timely” refunds of any fees and costs paid to obtain or maintain their jobs if such conditions were previously imposed.

Signers must also agree to work to “fully and effectively” incorporate the commitment into their social compliance standards within a year of inking the agreement, as well as regularly report on their actions to implement the commitment through frameworks such as sustainability and modern slavery legal disclosures.

“All workers must be treated with dignity and respect, period,” said Steve Lamar, president and CEO of the AAFA. “Regrettably, migrant workers are particularly vulnerable to being abused, from having their passports and other travel documents withheld to being put in debt bondage or indentured servitude situations. By signing this commitment, members of the textile, apparel, footwear and travel goods industry are working to ensure that migrant workers are never put in these terrible situations and are fully and fairly compensated.”

The commitment’s announcement dovetailed with the Biden administration’s Summit for Democracy in Washington, D.C. The event is a reminder, the organizations said, that the “protection of labor rights is a key component of protecting democracy.”

“The new commitment to responsible recruitment is vital to protecting migrant workers from recruitment debt that could lead to forced labor,” said Sharon Waxman, president and CEO of the FLA. “By bringing together companies across the apparel and footwear industry, we help ensure that the employer pays for recruitment, not the workers. We are glad to see so many companies and their suppliers take these important steps and believe that the new provisions of the Commitment will drive real change for workers.”