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Wal-Mart Target Of Sweatshop Protest

by Farhan Haq
Sweatshop Index

To begin Oct. 3
(IPS) NEW YORK -- A US-based labor group intends using the winter holiday shopping season to force the nation's largest retail chain Wal-Mart, to open its doors to independent monitoring of its overseas factories.

On Oct. 3, the New York-based National Labor Committee will begin a series of protests and educational activities, called The People's Right to Know Campaign, in a bid to focus attention on Wal-Mart's production practices abroad.

"Wal-Mart is power," says Charles Kernaghan, the Committee's executive director, noting that the company's 1997 sales of $118 billion exceeded the gross domestic products of 155 countries. "If we can make Wal-Mart accountable for human rights, we can change the industry."

Company unwilling to disclose subcontractors
According to the National Labor Committee, approximately 85 percent of Wal-Mart's privately-owned clothing and footwear lines are produced offshore, with the bulk of production in countries like China and Indonesia, where wages are as low as 10 cents an hour.

Kernaghan says that Wal-Mart labels, or those sold exclusively at Wal-Mark outlets, are made in 49 countries, ranging from Central America to Eastern Europe. In all those countries, he contends, wages and working conditions at the factory level should be monitored by independent groups, such as religious organizations or local labor watchdogs.

Wal-Mart, however, is unwilling to disclose exactly which factories are subcontracted to produce garments for its clothing lines. That information, Wal-Mart officials say, includes trade secrets that no company is willing to divulge.

Activists scoff at the idea that Wal-Mart's overseas facilities should be subject to such secrecy. "They are not making 'smart' bombs and guided missiles. They are making underwear and blue jeans," argues the Rev. David Dyson, pastor of Brooklyn's Lafayette Avenue Presbyterian Church and member of the pro-labor rights People of Faith Network.

Michael Guy Epstein, head of the apparel firm Third Generation Inc, contends that Wal-Mart's claim that it cannot give away trade secrets is belied by the fact that the retailer and most US companies which send out work abroad share the same factories. If factories need to be kept secret, Epstein asks, "then why do they all use the same vendors?"

The National Labor Committee estimates that Wal-Mart uses 1,000 factories in China alone, and more than 30,000 factories around the world.

This year, Committee researchers investigated Wal-Mart stores in 11 American states to document the sources of production for several major Wal-Mart-owned or distributed lines.

Several of them had dramatically high rates of overseas production, including White Stag Women's Clothing (99 percent of whose production orders are sent abroad), McKids children's clothing (97 percent) and Kathie Lee (89 percent). By contrast, Kernaghan notes, the industry average for offshore production is 60 percent.

The Kathie Lee line, owned by popular television host Kathie Lee Gifford, has been embroiled in controversy since 1996, when the Committee found sweatshop conditions in Kathie Lee outlets in Honduras and New York City and child workers. Gifford immediately pledged that she would allow outside monitoring of all factories that sew her apparel.

"Sadly, your garments are now being made in China, Indonesia, Mexico, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and many other countries renowned for their pitifully low wages and inattention to worker rights," Kernaghan wrote in a letter to Gifford at the end of July.

Kernaghan contends that firms like Wal-Mart enjoy high enough profits that they should be able to pay living wages -- that is, enough pay to manage the average cost of basic household needs -- for its non-US labor force. But he denies charges, levelled by many of the same firms he has taken on in recent years, that he is a "protectionist" attacking U.S. efforts to send work abroad.

"This isn't a Buy American campaign, and it's not meant to take jobs out of the developing world," Kernaghan argues, adding that he coordinates the U.S. campaigns with human rights and religious groups that work in the developing world.

Instead, he says, the current campaign is designed to compel Wal-Mart -- and through Wal-Mart, the entire industry -- to come clean about its overseas facilities in a first step to allow them to be monitored.

in search of the lowest wages and cheapest working conditions
Wal-Mart has yet to respond to the Committee's allegations. But the company's news releases defend its track record of using U.S. workers and facilities, claiming that it is "the largest private employer of U.S. workers" and that it created 41,000 new U.S. jobs last year.

"Wal-Mart's unprecedented commitment to purchase from American vendor-partners whenever pricing and quality are comparable to goods made offshore has resulted in the reintroduction of many American-made products previously 'lost' to overseas plants," the firm says in one release. "Wal-Mart purchased more than $59 billion worth of US-manufactured goods and services in 1995," it adds.

Yet Epstein counters that, in the modern globalized economy, a firm like his -- which uses only U.S. facilities -- has no chance of receiving Wal-Mart contracts because its costs are deemed to be too high. "Those that cheat more, win," he says of the current rules of global capitalism.

"They are going to do it (undercut labor norms) as long as they can get away with it," Dyson adds. "And they can get away with it because they can surf the global economy" in search of the lowest wages and cheapest working conditions.

The Committee's campaign will start in October with demonstrations outside several Wal-Mart stores, and presentations about how low wages are in many Wal-Mart factories in China, Indonesia and Central America.

Although Kernaghan says he is expecting a long fight, the Committee is adamant that it is not calling for a boycott of Wal- Mart products, since many activist groups abroad fear that a boycott would simply result in a departure by US firms from their countries.

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Albion Monitor August 10, 1998 (

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