By STEVEN GREENHOUSE
Apparel and footwear factories overseas have slowly improved working conditions in response to a highly vocal anti-sweatshop movement, labor rights advocates say.
Pressure from college students and other opponents of sweatshops has led some factories that make goods for industry giants like Nike and the Gap to cut back on child labor, to use less dangerous chemicals and to require fewer employees to work 80-hour weeks, according to groups that monitor such factories.
These changes, labor advocates say, could signal the beginning of a broad improvement in conditions for low-paid apparel workers in Asian and Latin American factories after four decades in which the trend has been for American companies to transfer production overseas in search of ever-cheaper labor.
The advocates stress that the improvements have been spotty, and that serious problems remain at factories from Honduras to Hong Kong. Wages are often too low to feed a family, factory air is often filled with chemicals and many managers refuse to let sick employees leave work to get medical attention.
"There has been some improvement on the ground, but nowhere near significant enough," said Charles Kernaghan, executive director of the National Labor Committee, a leading anti-sweatshop group.
At many factories, labor rights advocates say, managers have stopped hitting workers, have improved ventilation and have stopped requiring workers to obtain permission before going to the toilet.
Sweatshop opponents praise some companies, like Liz Claiborne, for improving conditions, while accusing others, like Wal-Mart, of being slow to ensure changes at the overseas factories that produce their apparel.
"Some steps have been taken, but I don't think one can say that conditions have improved in any wholesale way," said Pharis Harvey, executive director of the International Labor Rights Fund, a watchdog group in Washington."A number of companies that produce globally are watching much more carefully to deal with problems before they become embarrassing public problems."
The anti-sweatshop movement has put many apparel makers, like the Gap and Kathie Lee Gifford, on the defensive by picketing in front of stores, holding sit-ins at colleges and bombarding companies with letters.
The movement, one of the nation's largest to push for changes since the 1960's, includes church and consumer groups, labor unions, human rights organizations and college, high school and even middle-school students. The movement's leaders often note that sweatshops are not just found overseas; many remain in New York, Los Angeles and other American cities.
At last month's protests in Seattle, conditions in such factories were a major focus, with many demonstrators demanding that trade treaties punish countries that permit violations of minimum labor standards.
Apparel industry executives say that with shoppers hunting for bargains, they face intense pressure to produce goods as cheaply as possible, encouraging many to turn to substandard factories.
Many corporate executives acknowledge that the anti-sweatshop movement's efforts are paying off.
Phil Knight, chairman of Nike, the world's largest footwear maker, said the movement had gotten his company to accelerate efforts to improve conditions.
"It probably speeded up some things that we might have done anyway," said Mr. Knight, whose company uses 565 footwear and apparel factories employing 500,000 workers in 46 countries. "Basically, the workers in footwear factories, not just our factories, are better off today than two years ago."
In one significant move, Nike and its rival Reebok are requiring the many Asian factories that produce for them to stop using petroleum-based adhesives that cause damage to the liver, kidney and central nervous system in favor of safer water-based adhesives.
Labor rights experts point to many improvements. Five years ago, monitoring groups say, apparel factories in Honduras often employed children under 14, but now it is rare to find workers under 16. In Indonesia, managers no longer systematically squash unionization efforts.
Liz Claiborne, the Gap and Reebok have all hired respected human rights groups to monitor a handful of their factories.
"The anti-sweatshop movement has improved working conditions," said Apo Leong, executive director of the Asia Monitor Research Center, a labor rights group based in Hong Kong. "We're seeing the multinationals putting pressure on their contractors, and subsequently conditions have improved."
Mr. Leong noted that factories in China were using less child labor and prison labor. But he said grave problems remained throughout Asia. He said that China often imprisoned union organizers, that many Nike and Reebok plants still lacked adequate ventilation and that many factories in Cambodia had deplorable health and safety conditions.
Sweatshop opponents point to other problems. Jeffrey Ballinger, executive director of Press for Change, a labor rights group, said wages paid by Nike's Indonesian factories had fallen in recent years, after accounting for inflation, an assertion the company denies. " Wages are behind where they were," Mr. Ballinger said. "They're below what is considered necessary to meet the minimum needs of a single adult."
Mr. Kernaghan of the National Labor Committee said, "There are two places where progress seems to grind to a halt: the effort to form unions and the effort to have wage increases."
One recent development is the formation of the Fair Labor Association, a White House-backed group of human rights organizations and companies, including L. L. Bean, Nike and Reebok. This group is setting up a monitoring system to inspect overseas factories to get them to meet minimum labor standards, like not requiring employees to work more than 60 hours a week.
Many campus groups call the association pro-corporate, and criticize it for not requiring factories to pay a living wage. But the association's members defend it as the first serious corporate-backed effort to inspect apparel factories and to put teeth behind basic labor standards.