Albion Monitor


by Jeff Elliott

Over half the garment companies investigated by the Labor Department are found to be sweatshops

VISIT Monitor's Sweatshop Index for more recent information about sweatshops and what you can do

It's now officially "the holidays," which also means "the shopping season." Chances are that you're spending lots of money buying nice things for friends and family, and chances are that they're also purchasing nice things for you and yours. Come Christmas morning, pine trees in a million living rooms will be surrounded by cheerfully wrapped boxes.

But the items inside those boxes weren't made by Santa's merry elves. Chances are that something under your tree was made in a sweatshop -- quite probably, by the hands of children. If the gift is trendy clothes, the odds are high; if the gift is expensive running shoes, it's all but promised that the person earned just pennies for making them.

More than ever before, sweatshops are booming. Over half the garment companies investigated by the Labor Department are found to be breaking laws -- and that's not even counting the manufacturers that have their work performed outside the U.S., where some governments condone (and even encourage) sweatshop conditions.

The Department of Labor estimates that there are over 10,000 sweatshops in this country. Where are America's sweatshops? The government's most recent list of violators show Southern California in the lead. It was also near L.A. where last year police found the worst situation in memory. In a guarded apartment compound surrounded by high walls and barbed wire, Thai women were working 17-hour shifts for less than $2 per day. That clothing was sold at department stores like Macy's, Mervyn's, and Montgomery Ward.

Although the New York City area is close behind L.A. in the number of sweatshops found, this isn't just another "big city problem;" Garland Texas, roughly the same size as the Santa Rosa/Rohnert Park area, consistently appears on the Department's list. (Pity the employees of Truong Sewing as they make clothes for the "de corp" label, and those slaving away at JNT Sewing/Laurel Ann, as they sew garments for Focus Apparel Group of Dallas.)

With its high immigrant population, Garland offers cheap labor, and sweatshops appear wherever cheap labor can be found. And in this country, that usually means near Asian and Hispanic communities -- no different from conditions that produced the illfamed turn-of-the-century sweatshops, where European immigrants toiled in near-slavery conditions.

No TV coverage as Congress told that Eddie Bauer, J. Crew, and Kmart likewise sold clothing made by underage Honduran workers

Although the barbed wire compound in L.A. was horrifying, news reports about it probably appeared in your newspaper's back pages -- if anything appeared at all. When sweatshops finally made the headlines last spring, it was because of a celebrity's tearful claims of innocence.

Talk show host Kathie Lee Gifford held a weepy press conference after it was revealed that her Kathie Lee clothing line, sold by Wal-Mart, was made by sweatshop workers in Honduras. That was just the beginning; soon it was revealed that some of the clothes were also made in a New York City sweatshop, just blocks from the studio where she appears daily. And although the workers there were earning less than minimum wage, they hadn't been paid in weeks.

Husband Frank Gifford appeared at the sweatshop with $9,000 in cash for the unpaid workers. With cameras rolling, he said his wife was too "wiped out and devastated" to appear at the shop herself, and apologized for the both of them. Wal-Mart also issued a press release stating that it deplored sweatshops -- and would compensate the Giffords for any expense.

With the help of a top-notch PR firm, Kathie Lee began repairing her tarnished image, transforming Gifford into a labor activist, sworn to fight sweatshops everywhere. The campaign was launched with help from an extremely sympathetic report presented by ABC's "PrimeTime Live."

Why did the network rush to save Gifford's image? Norman Solomon pointed out in his Media Beat column that both ABC and her talk show are owned by the Walt Disney Company -- a corporation with much to lose should the public become too upset about sweatshops.

As the Monitor reported in January, Disney and other corporations have depended upon sweatshops in Haiti to sew Pocahontas pajamas and other Disney theme clothing, where workers are paid just 12 cents an hour.

But if there were any doubts about the working conditions in the sweatshop that made Gifford's clothing, reporters had the opportunity to hear a first-hand report from Wendy Diaz, a worker from the factory in Honduras.

Although only 15 year-old, Diaz said she had worked at the factory since she was 13. Managers often grabbed women and girls, she said, and she was only allowed to go to the bathroom twice in her 11-hour shift. She made $3.74 for her long day's work.

Few reporters covered Diaz that day, however; at another press conference, a dry-eyed Kathie Lee was standing next to New York Governor Pataki, supporting a state ban on apparel made in sweatshops.

"I am proud to stand with Governor Pataki if it can advance efforts to end substandard working conditions," Gifford stated.

At about the same time, Wendy Diaz was telling other reporters what she thought Mrs. Gifford's efforts. "Kathie Lee hasn't done enough because the mistreatment continues," Diaz said.

Gifford's media blitz worked. Photos of her with Pataki, then later, President Clinton, shot across the wire services. Network news programs broadcast sound bites from her Congressional testimony on child labor -- although curiously, there wasn't TV coverage of Diaz and human-rights advocates telling Congress that Eddie Bauer, J. Crew, and Kmart likewise sold clothing made by underage Honduran workers. Besides the Kathie Lee clothing, they said, Wal-Mart's Jaclyn Smith signature line was also made by sweatshop children.

The story became more about Gifford's redemption than hellish sweatshop conditions -- all the better for columnists to joke that her tearful protests were a welcome change from her singing and peppy talk show chit-chat.

Sweatshops are fairly easy to spot -- just look for dirt cheap prices

Called "the guy who made Kathie Lee cry," labor activist Charles Kernaghan relentlessly pushed Gifford and Wal-Mart to accept responsibility for the sweatshops. The corporations play down sweatshops overseas and will "just push our ignorance as far as they can go," Kernaghan said during an interview at his New York City office.

Denial is the first line of defense used by the companies, he said. Kernaghan said that manufacturer Eddie Bauer refused to admit that it used the same Honduran sweatshop as Gifford's clothing line until he produced a Honduran worker who actually made the clothes.

Nor does Kernaghan believe that the manufacturers are ignorant of working conditions. "A company like Wal-Mart, for example, is very hands-on. Companies monitor the quality of these garments -- they don't put $10 million worth of fabric into a factory in El Salvador -- Liz Claiborne also has these giant factories in El Salvador that they contract with -- they don't put the fabric in there and walk away and say, "hey, we'll see you six months from now." They're in there every single day -- looking at the quality. If they wanted to do sweatshop monitoring they could do monitoring.

"And in fact, what we said to the Kathie Lee Gifford and the Wal-Mart people -- they were in that factory in Honduras, Global Fashions, six times to do inspections. How could they miss the locks on the bathrooms? How could they miss 130 kids working in the plant? How could they miss the armed guards? How could they miss the tension, the lack of water?"

Another defense used by manufacturers is the problem's immense scope. At a midsummer industry conference, a representative from Nordstrom said that the department store has 65,000 contractors which change continually -- how could they keep track of everyone?

But as Labor Secretary Robert Reich has pointed out, sweatshops are fairly easy to spot -- just look for dirt cheap prices. When a manufacturer buys something from a subcontractor at a steeply-discounted price, chances are that there's a little guy, somewhere, that's getting screwed.

Increasingly, that "somewhere" will be in the very poorest countries found anywhere. Sixty percent of the world's clothing is now made in developing countries, with China alone making about 13 percent of the global supply.

Estimates of the number of children working have doubled to 250 million

More than ever before, sweatshops cover the globe. Last month, the International Labor Organization (ILO) released a study that shows a dramatic shift of work from Europe and North America to Asia and the developing world. In countries like Malaysia, the number of workers making shoes, clothes, and fabrics have increased 600 percent since 1970. By contrast, over half of the clothes-making jobs in countries like Germany and England are gone.

According to the ILO study, there is also a steady "shift of full-time in-plant jobs to part-time and temporary jobs and, especially in clothing and footwear, increasing recourse to home work and small shops." In other words: even more sweatshops.

Countries like South Korea, Singapore, and Indonesia are also home to businesses that run sweatshops in still poorer countries like Laos, Nepal and Vietnam.

Indonesia serves as a typical example. While the country spends billions to build a glittering hi-tech future, it keeps wages competitive with countries like Haiti. Just earlier this year, Indonesia's Ministry of Manpower approved a complex, multi-tiered increase in the minimum wage -- bringing the average paycheck up to about two bucks per day.

And it's no coincidence that countries with the cheapest labor are also places where child labor is heaviest. According to another ILO survey, some 61 percent of child workers --nearly 153,000,000 young souls -- are found in Asia. All told, some 250 million children between the ages of 5 and 14 are working, more than double the estimates of a few years ago.

Don't believe that you're Christmas gifts are sweatshop free as long as you stay away from clothes, however. As Kernaghan described, "sweatshops are absolutely not limited to apparel. Sporting goods, electronics, shoes, sneakers, agricultural products, coffee, bananas -- you name it -- it's made under some pretty rough conditions."

"Subcontractors are promised that there will be a military contingent no more than 10 minutes away to handle labor problems"

Besides clothes, some of the conditions involving shoe makers are most controversial. In particular, the situation with Nike promises to be even more controversial in coming months than last summer's Kathie Lee melodrama.

Nike CEO Phil Knight joined Kathie Lee Gifford in her visit with President Clinton, promising Nike would join a group of "responsible" corporations that would study a range of international labor issues. Knight is also vocal about the benefits he brings to countries like Indonesia where povery is extreme.

"Whether you like Nike or don't like Nike, good corporations are the ones that lead these countries out of poverty," Knight in a recent Washington Post interview. "When we started in Japan, factory labor there was making $4 a day, which is basically what is being paid in Indonesia and being so strongly criticized today. Nobody today is saying, 'The poor old Japanese.' We watched it happen all over again in Taiwan and Korea, and now it's going on in Southeast Asia."

Hogwash, say Nike critics. The company is no kindly benefactor; Phil Knight's flinty heart would make Mr. Scrooge proud. Michael Moore lists Knight as his #3 "corporate criminal" in his best-selling book, "Downsize This!" Moore also jokes (?) that his next film will be called "Phil & Me," as he torments Nike's CEO as he earlier did the head of General Motors.

Knight's claims of corprate beneficence are easy to dispute. Nike began operations in Japan during the early '60's -- when four bucks was worth, well, four bucks. Japan does not allow children to work; in parts of Indonesia, half of the children do. And workers interviewed in Indonesia say that yes, they're making $4 per day -- but that's because they're also working about 12 hours a day.

Max White, a member of Global Exchange and a leader of a group calling for a Nike boycott, recently visited Indonesia, where he met a woman who was paid about a week's wages after her hand was permanently crushed by a factory machine.

White and others say that Nike relies on Indonesia's ruthless dictatorship to keep workers in line. "Subcontractors are promised that there will be a military contingent no more than 10 minutes away to handle labor problems," White was told.

White told the Campaign for Labor Rights that Nike will follow Indonesian companies as they move into the poorest nations in search of ever-cheaper labor. "I am convinced that Nike and Reebok are on the point of pulling out of Indonesia and going to Vietnam, just as they pulled out of Korea and went to Indonesia and China in the early 90's. Nike and Reebok are now doing only month-to-month contracting in Indonesia because they are preparing to leave.

"One reason we feel obliged to increase the pressure on Nike, through a boycott, is to try to prevent Nike from continuing its cut-and-run policy whenever the minimum wage in a given country even begins to approach what the workers require for a reasonable life."

Nike will also likely draw fire because of celebrity spokesperson Michael Jordan. Paid about $20 million a year to endorse company shoes, the basketball star has expressed indifference to the situation in Indonesia. In June, he was quoted as saying, "I don't know the complete situation. Why should I? I'm trying to do my job. Hopefully, Nike will do the right thing, whatever that might be."

A letter writing campaign to Jordan is currenty underway, asking him to demand fair wages and worker treatment from Nike.

Little reform will happen unless independent observers can monitor conditions

So what's to be done?

At least two things must happen to improve the current situation, almost everyone agrees.

An important role is played by you, the consumer. Boycott companies that are known to use sweatshop labor, and don't buy from chain stores that promote those products. Let your local stores know why you're no longer shopping there. Write to celebrities like Michael Jordan, urging them to use their considerable clout to improve conditions.

While grassroot action can motivate change, little reform will happen unless independent observers can monitor conditions, interviewing workers without company goons or soldiers interfering. And corporations (as well as many governments) are fighting against this bitterly.

"The industry has gotten a lot more canny," believes Trim Bissell of Campaign for Labor Rights, a watchdog group. "Now, instead of refusing to agree to independent monitoring, they simply announce compliance while trotting out a new and improved version of same-old-same-old self-monitoring or monitoring via private firms answerable to the transnationals. Many people will be confused by the new industry strategy."

As an example, Bissell notes that Reebok has proposed a joint venture with Nike to monitor working conditions of their own subcontractors. Says Bissell, "Such an assertion flies in the face of everything we know about the industry. It's definitely a buyer's (shoe company's) game. The Nikes and Reeboks of the world call all the shots. They dictate the price per item which virtually guarantees that the consumer goods we buy were made under exploitative conditions. Which leads to the central contradiction in Reebok's plan: a classic case of the fox guarding the chicken coop.

"What is at stake here is the core issue of the international labor rights movement. Companies like Nike and Reebok know that they can issue the most flowery codes of conduct in the world or they can join the Labor Department in producing guidelines for a "no sweat" label -- as long as they get to pick who will check up on their (non)compliance."

Nike shareholders rejected independent monitoring during the annual meeting this September, as Nike security guards and sheriff's deputies kept Max White and other critics away from the Beaverton, Oregon meeting. Shareholders also were told that quarterly revenue had topped $2 billion for the first time in Nike's history, and that future orders for the next five months were up a record 66 percent.

Labor Secretary Robert Reich continues to promote the Administration's "No Sweat" campaign, which it began stepping up garment enforcement in 1993. Since then, the Labor Department boasts that it has recovered more than $10 million in wages for more than 34,000 garment workers.

But critics say that the Department of Labor is too easily appeased by corporate promises to monitor conditions themselves. And even companies that do write ethical codes for their subcontractors often omit one important freedom from their list: the right of workers to organize a union.

Looking back on the brutal business of sweatshops, it seems like we've come full circle. At the turn of the last century, workers slaved long hours. They were not allowed to use bathrooms, talk, or take breaks -- exactly the same as conditions spreading today around the world. At the close of our century, it seems that we've made no progress at all.

But after a horrific sweatshop fire in 1911, public outrage grew. Consumers demanded proof that no one suffered or died to make their clothes. The National Consumers League "white label" (shown above) guaranteed that factory laws were obeyed and no one was required to take work home -- where it was likely to be done by children. From these roots and this consumer anger, the labor union movement became something that could no longer be ignored.

If only voters and shoppers could see the faces of those millions and millions of workers in Indonesia, L.A., Garland, Texas, and other sweatshop hotspots, then perhaps that the situation today will likewise bring about a new movement born of outrage.

Think of the faces below while Christmas shopping. Each of them has more important things to do than wasting their childhood as slaves for Kathie Lee, Wal-Mart, Disney, or the next corporation waiting in the wings.

Workers at the Global Fashions plant in Honduras, where Kathie Lee garments were made

Cartoon logo by John DeSalvio

[A personal note: This series is a tribute to Bob Truehaft, one of the most dedicated labor attorneys of our time. Happy holidays, Bob, and we wish you many more to come.]

Comments? Send a letter to the editor.

Albion Monitor Issue 21 (

All Rights Reserved.

Contact for permission to reproduce.

Front Page