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By LARRY KANTER

Staff Reporter

For years, L.A. apparel firms have complained that local industry is being hammered by competition from low-cost subcontractors used by their U.S. competitors in places like Latin America and Asia.

So you'd think that local clothing companies would be cheering last week's recommendation by a presidential task force for standards on wages and working conditions at foreign factories used by U.S. companies. If adopted, the proposal might help level the playing field.

But local apparel firms greeted the code of conduct with more skepticism than enthusiasm.

"It's a feel-good effort, a marketing approach that doesn't really address the problem," said Bernard Lax, president of the Coalition of Apparel Industries in California, which represents about 500 firms statewide.

"Publicity-wise, it may make things better," added Richard Tan, president of J. Michelle of California, an L.A. womenswear firm which manufactures about half of its clothes at factories in Mexico. "It may make the retailers feel better. But overall, it's not going to affect the business."

Last week, an eight-month-old White House task force comprising labor unions, human rights groups and apparel firms reached a tentative code of conduct for laborers' rights at U.S. manufacturing plants and contracting shops abroad.

The accord would limit work weeks to 60 hours; call for paying workers at least the local minimum wage; and establish an independent monitoring association which would assess whether companies are abiding by the code.

Firms would voluntarily sign on to the accord; those that are in compliance would be able to place a tag on clothing telling customers that the garment wasn't made in a sweatshop.

The question for apparel makers, however, is whether consumers are concerned enough about sweatshops to pay higher prices for their slacks, sweaters and shirts.

"The American public demands the best prices in the world," said Chris Bryer, vice president of CMG Inc., which produces menswear under the Chazz label. "You get low prices by paying low wages.

"The public only cares about where things are made when it becomes a news story."

Even more important than consumers, Bryer added, are the retailers. As the retail industry has undergone rapid consolidation, a shrinking number of buyers has been able to demand lower prices from manufacturers a trend which has encouraged firms to move their production offshore.

Unless buyers reduce the pressure on apparel firms to cut costs, Bryer said, any code of conduct will be meaningless.

"It is going to be the retailers who decide if this works," said Bryer, who makes about 70 percent of his garments in factories in Mexico and Hong Kong.

Lax, for his part, said that by targeting manufacturers and retailers, the government is headed in the wrong direction altogether.

Instead, he suggested that if the government is serious about cracking down on foreign sweatshops, it needs to take the same approach it did when entertainment and software companies began complaining about the widespread pirating of compact discs in places like China and Taiwan.

The government responded with trade sanctions including decreased quotas and higher duties which were lifted only after the countries were able to demonstrate they were in compliance with international law.

"Until our trade and commerce department takes that approach with apparel, nothing will change," said Lax.

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