Raise the Wage Act 2019: House majority looking to lift millions out of poverty

headshot of NCL Health Policy intern Alexa

By NCL Health Policy intern Alexa Beeson

June 16 marked the longest period the United States has gone without an increase in the federal minimum wage. The federal wage floor was last raised a decade ago, in 2009. The current minimum wage is just $7.25 an hour, which is a poverty wage by federal standards, but tipped workers and people with disabilities often make even less. Worse yet, the value of this wage has decreased by 13 percent since its enactment due to inflation.

Many states have increased their minimum wages, including some red states like Arkansas and Missouri. These states have done so through the popular-vote referendum process. There is widespread support from all Americans–Democrats and Republicans alike–on this issue. In fact, 70 percent of Republican voters want a raised federal wage floor. There are still 21 states, however, whose workers receive only the bare minimum federal wage or, even worse, a tipped wage.

The U.S. House of Representatives, now led by a Democratic majority for the first time in many years, will be taking up the Raise the Wage Act (H.R. 582), and there is a companion bill by the same name in the Senate (S. 150).

The Raise the Wage Act will incrementally lift the federal wage floor to $15 an hour over the next five years. If enacted, the legislation would reduce levels of poverty across the nation without driving vulnerable populations into unemployment. It will also help decrease the wage gap between minimum and median wage workers. The House is expected to have a roll call vote on H.R. 582 before the August recess. If it does pass in the House, the act will have a hard time making it through the Republican-controlled Senate. However, this is still a progressive step in the right direction.

This act will also end subminimum wages for tipped employees. If employees make less than the $7.25 federal minimum wage, including tips, employers are supposed to add the rest to their paycheck. However, some employers fail to do so. The affected employees can make as little as $5 less than the minimum wage. The way the system works now, customer gratuities act as wage subsidies that we believe should be covered by the employer. For those concerned with whether raising the minimum wage will stop customers from tipping, studies show that eliminating the tiered wage system will not stop patrons from leaving tips.

Raise the Wage will end the subminimum wage for people with disabilities, some of whom make mere pennies an hour. Subminimum wages act as a form of legalized discrimination, and this bill will make it impossible for employers to get new special exemptions to pay their employee’s subminimum wages. It will also end current exemptions because all wages will be increased to $15 an hour in the next seven years.

Some fiscally conservative groups have claimed that raising the wage to $15 an hour would lead to high unemployment or business closures, with small businesses burdened by the extra costs. However, studies contradict those claims. Many show that raising the minimum wage would have little or no impact on employment. A study conducted by the University of California at Berkeley Institute for Research on Labor and Employment found that when the town of Berkeley raised the minimum wage, it actually saw a decrease in unemployment and a reduction in poverty. Further research showed that wage increases in 51 counties over 45 states had no adverse effect on employment hours or weeks worked.

NCL has been a long-standing advocate for fair minimum wages. In the early 1900s, the League’s General Secretary Florence Kelley ran a minimum wage campaign, which passed laws in 14 states. We are encouraged to see the House of Representatives taking affirmative steps to raise the federal minimum wage.

Alexa is a student at Washington University in St. Louis where she studies Classics and Anthropology and concentrates in global health and the environment. She expects to graduate in May of 2020.

Minimum wage gets a boost in state initiatives

Did you know that Arkansas will soon have the highest minimum wage in the United States at $9.25 an hour come January 2019? A quarter of the state’s workers will get a raise! Missouri isn’t far behind, with an initiative passing this fall as well.

As Congress and state legislatures remain in gridlock and unable to move progressive legislation, another very hopeful phenomenon is playing out through the initiative process, even in deep red states. Ballot initiatives are allowing citizens to directly support legislative reforms. As the Arkansas example shows, the greatest beneficiaries are those making minimum wages.

The federal minimum wage is stuck at a paltry $7.25;  for seven years, Congress has taken no action to change that. But 29 states, from Maine to Hawaii, and more than a dozen cities have increased their minimum wages. This translates into 60 percent of minimum wage workers making higher than the federal floor, adding $5 billion to the paychecks of 4.5 million low-wage workers.

Ten states are boosting their wage floors step by step, including California, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Michigan, New York, Rhode Island, and Washington. Automatic cost-of-living increases will kick in in eight other states: Alaska, Florida, Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, New Jersey, Ohio, and South Dakota.

But let’s give credit where credit is due. The “Fight for $15” movement launched a campaign in liberal areas, first winning at Seattle Tacoma Airport in November 2013 with a referendum for $15 an hour. Within two years, New York and California had adopted $15 an hour as their target. The only thing that is slowing this campaign is state legislatures. When Albuquerque, Chicago, Los Angeles, Providence, Kansas City, San Francisco, San Diego, and Santa Fe each adopted their own minimum wage laws, 18 state legislatures passed laws preempting cities from increasing minimum wages.

Even the liberal DC City Council overruled Initiative 77, which would have done away with tipped wages and ensured all workers in the District earn the minimum wage.

The takeaway here is that increasing the minimum wage turns out to be very popular when placed on the ballot by initiative, even in red states like Arkansas. But reactionary state legislatures, bowing to pressure from the business community, too often work to undo these laws.

We are also cheered by Amazon’s announcement that it will pay all its workforce a base $15 minimum wage and JPMorganChase will pay $18 as a base wage.

Things are looking up for hourly workers. Florence Kelley, NCL’s General Secretary for our first 33 years and drafter of the first minimum wage laws in the United States, is surely smiling down upon us!

NCL’s experiences with Initiative 77, DC’s repealed One Fair Wage attempt

Earlier this month, DC City council voted to repeal Initiative 77 in an 8-5 vote. The initiative, which was supported by DC residents by a 55-44% vote, would have eliminated the gap between the “tipped credit” and minimum wage for restaurant workers and ensure that all tipped workers get the minimum wage that other workers are entitled to.

As it stands, tipped workers in Washington DC get a base tipped wage of $3.89 per hour plus tips. If workers don’t get the minimum wage—which is currently $13.25 an hour in DC—employers are supposed to make up the difference. Initiative 77 was intended to shift the burden of ensuring wage equality from consumers to employers, where we believe it actually belongs.

National Consumers League took a personal interest in this issue because of our extensive history with raising the minimum wage over the decades. We testified before the DC City Council in support of Initiative 77 in what was a marathon hearing that started at 11 am and ended at 3 am. In our testimonies, we emphasized the extensive history of the minimum wage laws unfairly carving out tipped workers, while stressing the importance of ensuring that DC’s most vulnerable make an equitable wage. Our testimonies also included the personal experiences of a staff member that has worked in various front-of-house and back-of-house restaurant positions at businesses in Oregon, a one fair wage state, and Georgia, a non-one fair wage state.

Supporters of the Initiative were, by and large, people of color or professionals with extensive experience in labor law or wage policy. The most vocal opponents of the bill were restaurant employees or small restaurant owners in DC’s most affluent neighborhoods. Opponents followed what seemed to be scripted testimony, arguing that Initiative 77 was a bad bill because it came from “outside of DC” or that implementing it would be the first step of a “grand plan” to eliminate tipping.

In our view, the public hearing showed a clear bias for those opposed to Initiative 77. DC Council Chairman Phil Mendelson—an avowed opponent—led the hearing. Witnesses in favor of repeal were stacked onto the beginning of the hearing, while key supporters of Initiative 77 spoke much later—well after many of the councilmembers had left. Sadly, the council showed a lack of understanding about Initiative 77 and its potential impact on DC as a whole.

Opponents on the Council also expressed opposition to any type of compromise to Initiative 77. At no point during the hearing, did Chairman Mendelson or Councilmember Jack Evans—also an avowed opponent—suggest that they were open to a compromise or that they were willing to meet with groups to address concerns about the plight of tipped workers in DC. Mendelson went so far as to attack one witness from the Restaurant Opportunities Center’s DC office (ROC-DC) when he called the woman back on the stand and suggested she was a plant used by ROC to gather support for the bill. Despite this, ROC-DC and other advocates appeared more than reasonable, suggesting potential compromises; offering an extended timeline for wage increases, tax cuts, and others. Many of the council members that voted for the repeal—most notably Councilmembers Jack Evans (Ward 2), Phil Mendelson (Chairman), Kenyan McDuffie (Ward 5), and Anita Bonds (At-Large)—kept saying that 77 used deceptive language to sway voters. “The language in [Initiative 77] was misleading at best, dishonest at worst,” said Mendelson shortly before the October vote. Why? He didn’t say.

Yet the campaign slogan for those opposed to 77 was “Save Our Tips” despite there being no restriction of the tipping practice in the Initiative 77 bill. We believe that voters were not duped and that the bill passed in every ward, besides Ward 3, because DC’s residents wanted to better the lives of tipped workers. As Councilmember Robert White Jr. said in the public hearing, “[we] cannot assume that voters were ignorant after a campaign of fierce campaigning on both sides.”

Nevertheless, the DC Council voted in favor of repealing the bill. In spite of the sensible wage protection policy offered, the repeal of a measure that reflected the will of the people in the District Of Columbia, which is exactly what 77 was. Initiative 77 is another example of hardworking employees losing to big money—the National Restaurant Association spent millions to defeat 77 and when they lost that battle, persuaded the DC Council to overturn it—and ultimately being ignored. Voters showed up and overwhelmingly voted in favor of Initiative 77, yet the council responded by telling voters that their vote doesn’t matter and their voice is not important. What a sad day for democracy in our nation’s capital.

Thank you to the  DC City Council members that respected the votes of DC residents and supported the remedying of wage inequality by voting for Initiative 77.

Charles Allen (Ward 6)

Mary M. Cheh (Ward 3)

Brianne K. Nadeau (Ward 1)

Elissa Silverman (At-Large)

Robert White, Jr. (At-Large)

D.C. City Council Angers Voters by Moving to Overturn Initiative 77 – National Consumers League

By NCL Public Policy intern Melissa Cuddington

After the passage of Initiative 77, seven members of D.C. City Council pledged to overturn the initiative, essentially suppressing the will of the voters. This move by the City Council has further outraged D.C. voters, who already feel disenfranchised. Considering the 80,000 DC voters who weighed in on this issue, its no wonder.

In the past few weeks, there has been controversy surrounding Initiative 77 and its hope of survival in D.C. City Council. Initiative 77, a worker-led campaign that passed by a 56% to 44% margin, would raise the minimum tipped wage by $1.50 a year until it reaches $15.00 by 2025. Currently, in the District of Columbia, the minimum tipped wage is a mere $3.33. Employers are allowed to pay tipped workers this small amount if tips make up the difference. Therefore, if tipped workers make at least $13.25 in tips, the current minimum wage, then employers are “off the hook” for covering the difference.

According to a recent article in The Washington Post, even those who voted against the initiative agreed that the City Council should not negate the will of the people. Those interviewed for the article responded with heated comments saying, “it enrages me,” and, “the City Council shouldn’t assume an electorate…doesn’t know what they are voting for.” These are not isolated responses; many voters have reached out to their City Council members, strongly protesting the possibility of repeal.

NCL supported the OFW campaign but regardless, it is not democratic or just for the City Council to overturn the decision of the voters. Many, including the leading group in this effort, Restaurant Opportunities Centers United (ROC United), have accused the City Council of voter suppression and stomping on democracy. 

NCL believes in Initiative 77 and shedding the distinction between a tipped and minimum wage. We also strongly believe that civic participation is the foundation of our democracy. If the City Council moves to overturn this measure, it will send a very negative message to voters about the importance of the democratic process and the value of their voice in it.

Equal Pay Day – National Consumers League

Sally GreenbergWhat does Equal Pay Day mean in America? It’s a time for reflecting on why women still less than their male counterparts. In 1963, when President John F. Kennedy signed the Equal Pay Act, women earned 59 Cents for every dollar earned by men. That number in 2013 has inched up but still lingers at 78 cents. That’s too bad, because women are the sole bread earners in millions of families and the lack of parity in pay hurts them and their children.

What does Equal Pay Day mean in America? It’s a time for reflecting on why women still less than their male counterparts. In 1963, when President John F. Kennedy signed the Equal Pay Act, women earned 59 Cents for every dollar earned by men. That number in 2013 has inched up but still lingers at 78 cents. That’s too bad, because women are the sole bread earners in millions of families and the lack of parity in pay hurts them and their children. As the House Minority Leader says, “When women succeed, America succeeds.”

The Economic Policy Institute reports that the higher up the economic ladder, the greater the disparity. In 2014 women in the 95th percentile of female earners made 79% of the wages earned by men, while women in the lowest 10th percentile made 91 cents for each $1 earned by men. Not surprising that 2/3 of minimum wage workers are women. What surprised me is that women with college degrees earn 78% of their male counterparts and women with advanced degrees earn 74% of what men make. And in traditionally female occupations, men even make more there! Male registered nurses out-earn female nurses by an average of $5,100 per year. This seems like rank sexism to me, and we could begin to change it with new laws in place.

And yet, in 2010, 2012 and 2014, the leadership in Congress blocked consideration of the Paycheck Fairness Act, which President Obama supported, and NCL and many other groups have campaigned for. That legislation would extend pay-equity rules to federal contractors and update the Equal Pay Act.

Women’s pay equity shouldn’t be a partisan issue. All families, whether Democratic, Republican, Independent or unaffiliated, will benefit when women earn more. This week’s Equal Pay Day is a fine time to raise these issues again – increasing the minimum wage has strong support in red as well as blue states. Equal pay for women should be right behind it. 

Sitting on mountains of cash, U.S. corporations do too little to reduce income inequality – National Consumers League

larry The question of income and asset inequality has certainly moved center stage. Demands for an increase in the minimum wage are being met by howls of protest, and complaints about skyrocketing executive compensation, alas, are being met with apparent indifference in corporate boardrooms. So the struggle for justice continues, and NCL is right in there, as we have been since 1899.

There’s another player in this drama, though, that doesn’t get the same attention, even though it may have an even greater impact. That’s the fact that U.S. corporations are sitting on top of mountains of cash, but they’re not investing in creating new jobs. With the big increases in stock value — the Dow Jones Industrial Average gained more than 28% in 2013! — a reasonable person might think, why, let’s use some of this new wealth to help out all those unemployed Americans, our fellow citizens!

What are many corporations doing instead? They’re buying back their own stock, which increases the value of the shares still available to be traded. Great, if you’re a shareholder. If you’re one of the millions who lost their jobs in the great recession and whose unemployment benefits have just run out, not so good.

What can we do about it? If you are a shareholder, agitate! Let the company know you want it to invest in jobs, in community development, in public health. Tell the executive leadership to get off the sidelines. If you’re a public employee, contact your retirement system managers and tell them you don’t want them investing in companies that are basically on strike against unemployed and underpaid U.S. workers.

This holiday season, a present for DC’s workers: Part 2 – National Consumers League

Second in a two-part series examining the new worker protection bills just passed by DC City Council.

Earned Sick and Safe Leave Amendment Act of 2013 (bill text) — extends protections to 20,000+ new workers and boosts enforcement to ensure that the hundreds of thousands of workers already covered are actually able to get the leave they earn under the law.

The bill as a whole will go into effect once funds for implementation are included in DC’s spring 2014 budget.

Covering Tipped Restaurant Workers

First and foremost, the bill extends paid sick days to tipped restaurant workers, who were carved out by an amendment when the original Accrued Sick and Safe Leave Act passed in 2008. The bill guarantees that these workers will receive their normal base wage or the full minimum wage (currently $8.25) for each hour of leave they use, whichever is higher. They will accrue one hour of paid leave for every 43 hours worked, up to five days per year.

No More Year of Waiting for Leave

Current law allows employers to wait a whole year before letting their employees accrue even a single sick day. The bill would guarantee that workers in all industries can start earning sick days from their first day on the job and could start using them after 90 days and would close a loophole where workers could be fired and then rehired in order to cancel their accrued leave. Especially in high turnover industries like child-care, cleaning, security, construction, and restaurants, these changes are huge victories.

Real Enforcement Mechanisms

The bill includes some of the best enforcement mechanisms in the country for any paid leave bill. Employees who are denied paid sick days will get to choose between filing an administrative claim with the DC Office of Wage-Hour or suing in court. Either way, in addition to any lost pay for the days they took off, they would be owed $500 in damages for each day they were forced to work instead of taking leave they had earned, interest for pay owed, reinstatement if they were fired or demoted for taking leave, and attorneys fees and court costs to help enable them to bring a claim.

Workers will have three years to file a claim and longer if their employer failed to post the required notice of paid sick leave rights. Businesses will be required to keep records of hours worked and leave accrued for at least that long and, if they fail to keep required records, employees’ testimony about the failure to be paid leave will be presumed true. The District government will also be able to assess enforcement costs and $1000 or higher civil penalties for violations as well as suspend business licenses until the violations are cured.

To encourage employees to come forward and speak out about violations, the bill includes strong retaliation protections not only when workers file official complaints, but also when they advocate for their rights directly to their supervisor, share information during an investigation, or share information about the right to sick leave with their co-workers.

Public Education

Finally, the bill provides for a public education campaign to ensure workers and employers know about the new law and how to comply with it.

Minimum wage movement building momentum – National Consumers League

Our economic recovery is well underway, the stock market has reached record highs, and corporations are registering record profits. Yet American low-wage workers are struggling. A movement to increase the minimum wage, however, is gaining momentum. What could this mean for workers across the country? Will the federal government act to lift millions of Americans out of poverty.

“Tonight, let’s declare that in the wealthiest nation on Earth, no one who works full time should have to live in poverty, and raise the federal minimum wage to $9 an hour. This single step would raise the incomes of millions of working families. It could mean the difference between groceries or the food bank; rent or eviction; scraping by or finally getting ahead. For businesses across the country, it would mean customers with more money in their pockets.”

– President Barack Obama, 2013 State of the Union Address

Our economic recovery is well underway, the stock market has reached record highs, and corporations are registering record profits. Yet American low-wage workers are struggling. The federal minimum wage of $7.25/hr has not increased in four years, and the tipped minimum wage has remained stagnant for 22 years at the meager $2.13/hr. A movement to increase the minimum wage, however, is gaining momentum. How will this turn out for workers across the country?

At a time when unemployment remains high, the biggest employers of low-wage workers are able to play a game of supply and demand with workers and salaries as pawns. High unemployment rates means no need for competitive wages; if one person quits, another worker (or 50) will be anxiously waiting to fill the position. Unless new legislation mandating an increase in the minimum wage is passed, big companies can continue to pay low wages, and low-wage workers will continue to suffer.

This week, fast food workers are holding a series of one-day strikes in cities across the country. From New York, to Chicago, to Kansas City, St. Louis, Detroit, Milwaukee, and Flint, workers will take to the streets, risking their jobs, to demand increased wages. These strikes follow a series of stoppages by hundreds of federally contracted workers in Washington, DC last month.

Big companies claim that they cannot afford to pay workers more money. A close examination of their financials, however, tells a much different story. According to the National Employment Law Project (NELP), 78 percent of the 50 largest low-wage employers have been profitable every year for the last three years. During this time, the average top executive has received a $9.4 million salary each year.

Median pay for chief executives at the nation’s top corporations jumped 16 percent last year. Between 2006 and 2012, the bottom 20 percent of workers, however, have seen their income fall 5 percent—proof that the rich keep getting richer and the poor keep getting poorer, with a growing income gap.

In addition to stagnant wages, many companies have devised other methods for ensuring that what they pay their employees remains low. Caterpillar Inc., for example, pressured its long-term employees to accept six-year pay freezes despite record profits of $4.9 billion last year. Walmart has started hiring only temporary workers to fill open positions. Employees who work part time make, on average, $7/hr less than their full-time counterparts.

Despite some growth, the economy could use a boost. Increasing the minimum wage would result in a raise for millions of Americans and, with more money in their pockets, millions of consumers would spend more.

In his State of the Union Address, President Obama proposed a $9.00 minimum wage; the Fair Minimum Wage Act of 2013 (S. 460) (H.R. 1010) proposes a $10.10 minimum wage; the Washington, DC City Council recently approved a $12.50 minimum wage at big-box stores.

What do you think? Is it time to raise the minimum wage? Join the discussion at our Facebook page.

Saving workers’ lives with the ’10 cents’ pledge – National Consumers League

NCL has launched the 10 cents pledge campaign to harness consumers’ collective power and to send a message to retailers that we American consumers really do care about the health and safety of workers overseas who manufacture our clothes.

On April 24, in Bangladesh, the Rana Plaza garment factory collapsed and more than 1,100 people died. We have to do everything in our power to make sure that type of disaster never happens again.

The Worker Rights Consortium has calculated that for $3 billion total, every factory in Bangladesh could be renovated and updated to meet basic safety standards, preventing such tragedies. Updates would include construction of proper fire exits or fire escapes, as well as installation of emergency lighting, safety equipment, and electrical rewiring. Recent events have demonstrated the devastation and death that are inevitable when factories do not have these safeguards.

There is an estimated 7 billion individual garments imported every year from Bangladesh. A mere 10 cents tacked on to the price of each garment would generate $700 million a year – more than enough revenue to cover these necessary factory updates.

While European countries are making moves to show their support for improvement, only two American retailers (PVH and Abercrombie & Fitch) have signed an accord agreeing to improve factory conditions for workers in Bangladesh. Other American retailers including Walmart, GAP, JC Penney, and others think American consumers would be unwilling to pay the extra 10 cents needed to keep thousands of workers out of harm’s way.

Consumers need to SPEAK UP and let retailers know we are willing to pay 10 cents. Sign a pledge that you will pay 10 cents more to protect workers. When consumers band together, they have amazing power to influence even the biggest corporation’s decisions.

Let your voice be heard! Take the 10 cents pledge today!

Bangladeshi factory collapse igniting worker activist cries for improved safety – National Consumers League

The death toll following the Rana Plaza building collapse in Bangladesh on April 24 has climbed to more than 1,000. There are hundreds of people – mostly women – injured and countless others still missing. In the wake of this tragedy, perhaps the deadliest ever garment-factory disaster, it is clear factory safety must be reexamined, and worker’s rights in Bangladesh must be given the highest priority.

Deadly factory disasters are, unfortunately, nothing new. Last fall, NCL observed that the Bangladeshi factory fires that keep killing workers are reminiscent of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in the United States in 1911. That fire in New York City killed 146 — mostly immigrant – workers, galvanizing the labor community and government to make workplaces safer. Factories put in place fire codes, sprinklers, and new restrictions related to smoking and open flames inside the factory. Advocates hope the recent factory disasters in Bangladesh will have a similar effect on improving factory conditions for workers abroad.

The current situation in Bangladesh is complex, and there is much blame to go around. It would be easy to point to the Bangladeshi government, which often fails to enforce worker safety laws. What’s shocking is that a mere 24 hours before the Rana Plaza collapse, police warned that the building was unsafe to occupy after large structural cracks appeared in the support pillars. Factory owners decided to reopen the building the next day, forcing workers back inside. Those who refused to enter the building were told they would have to work three days unpaid for every day they missed.

The local and federal government in Bangladesh also has not provided a secure environment for workers to unionize and gain collective bargaining rights. Although unions are technically legal in Bangladesh, many reports suggest that those who act to protect themselves and fellow garment workers often face an uncertain fate. Aminul Islam, a Bangladeshi worker activist, disappeared under questionable circumstances last September. Days later, Islam’s body was found; he had been tortured and murdered. Many suspect his death was politically motivated.

It would also be easy for retailers to leave Bangladesh, following an example set by Disney earlier this week. To shed the label “Made in Bangladesh” might be a good PR move, for any affiliation with a country so riddled with worker safety issues can only have a negative impact on sales. Companies may be tempted to find the next frontier for cheap labor, a country that has not yet been burdened with the negative reports attributed to Bangladesh, and begin making cheap garments there instead.

This solution, however, could strip 3.5 million Bangladeshi workers of a paycheck. The garment industry pays workers an average of $38 per month, and while that figure may seem insignificant in America, in Bangladesh it provides an opportunity to escape poverty. If other retailers were to follow Disney’s lead, it could devastate the Bangladesh economy and reverse years of upward mobility among the poor.

The major retailers – those companies that reap billions in profits from selling products made in Bangladesh – bear the responsibility to mandate higher safety standards and worker protections. These companies include some of the biggest retailers in the world such as Walmart, J.C. Penney, Mango, Benetton, H&M, The Children’s Place, GAP, and Dress Barn. Currently, many of these companies perform social audits, a practice we and other labor groups call a façade. A 60-page report from the AFL-CIO claims the social auditing program accommodates major corporations at the expense of protecting workers.  Reports of factories being certified as safe just weeks before a collapse or fire raise serious question about these so-called safety audits.

So what can consumers and activists do?

Congressman George Miller, the Ranking Member of the U.S. House Committee on Education and the Workforce, laid the groundwork for a new independent and transparent monitoring system called the Bangladesh Fire and Building Safety Agreement. This template would more thoroughly protect worker’s rights and guarantee minimum safety requirements in factories, including that audits be conducted by independent safety experts that timely repairs be made to violating facilities, and that brands terminate contracts with a factory that does not meet high standards for keeping workers safe. Further, this agreement provides labor protections for workers. Major retailers including Calvin Klein, Tommy Hilfiger, Van Heusen, IZOD, Arrow and GH Bass & Co., have signed on to this new agreement. Others retailers must now be pressured by consumers and activists to follow.

While Rep. Miller’s proposal takes important steps to ensure increased factory safety, there is more that can be done. Western retailers must take independent steps to ensure increased worker protection. If the Bangladeshi government lacks the capacity to provide sufficient labor oversight, it is the job of those companies who make massive amounts of money from Bangladeshi labor to ensure those workers can safely unionize. Adidas, this week, announced a new program that encourages workers in Asia to anonymously report grievances through text messages directly to the company. The ability to blow the whistle without fear of being fired or blacklisted is an essential worker protection.

Those companies who play by the rules, and show they are willing to make investments to keep their workers safe, should be rewarded for doing so. For 114 years, NCL has worked to eliminate harsh, unregulated working conditions in factories. Florence Kelley, NCL’s first Executive Secretary, championed a “White Label” program over 100 years ago. This NCL seal of approval was displayed on stores that fought against child labor practices and endorsed 8-hour workdays. Consumers were urged to boycott stores that did not earn this certification.

Would a certification program work today? A certification process, like the White Label debuted by NCL a century ago, would give consumers the opportunity to check labels and only spend money on products from those companies who demonstrate the willingness to protect workers throughout their supply chain.

There are modern examples of how this can work. The GoodWeave label serves this function for the rug industry. In order to earn certification, companies must sign a legally binding contract to: adhere to child labor protection standards, allow unannounced random inspections by local inspectors, and pay a licensing fee to support the monitoring of the GoodWeave program. A similar labeling program could be implemented for clothing. If consumer awareness were raised and people began to consistently check labels, only those companies who are socially aware and willing to take the necessary steps for certification would thrive.

Congressman Miller has proposed a rational, realistic model to improve worker safety abroad. The Bangladesh Fire and Building Safety Agreement will create a binding contract for Western retailers and ensure they play by the rules. This issue deserves more legislative attention, and consumers need to understand that they too serve a role in protecting worker’s abroad. A petition on Change.org urging retailers to sign onto the Bangladesh Fire and Safety Agreement has already collected more than 100,000 signatures. Consumers should sign the petition, check the labels on the clothes they purchase, and continue to put pressure on retailers to protect worker’s rights and ensure factories are safe.