Albion Monitor

Kathie Lee, Disney, and the Sweatshop Uproar

by Norman Solomon

In private, Disney executives worry that news media might get around to widening the story

Controversy about Kathie Lee Gifford's clothing line has thrown harsh light on a TV star accused of profiting from labor at sweatshops. While Gifford takes the heat, the conglomerate that owns her show -- the Walt Disney Co. appears cool and above the fray. But that's not fair.

Disquieting facts about Gifford's commercial ventures have surfaced in recent weeks. Some of the clothes with her name on the label came from a Honduran factory with girls as young as 12 working in abysmal conditions. Other Kathie Lee garments hail from a Manhattan sweatshop where even the paltry wages for adults went unpaid.

These revelations are painful for Gifford, who co-hosts the hugely successful "Live With Regis & Kathie Lee" program. Meanwhile, in private, Disney executives worry that news media might get around to widening the story. Their nightmare echoes the famous Mouseketeer tune ("Who's the leader of the club...")with a present-day version: "Who's the firm with sweatshops that make clothes for you and me? D-I-S...N-E-Y..."

The suffering of sweatshop employees got short shrift

In Haiti, poor women produce Disney clothing such as Pocahontas T-shirts and Lion King outfits for kids. Charles Kernaghan the labor-rights activist whose congressional testimony blew the whistle on the Honduras factory says that Disney relies on exploited Haitian labor.

"The wages are so low that the indentured workers live from debt to debt in utter misery," Kernaghan told me. The setup in Haiti is hardly fly-by-night, he added. Disney has been buying clothes from the same contractor for 20 years.

In May, while Disney continued to escape media scrutiny of its own consumer products, the company did what it could to stabilize Kathie Lee Gifford's career. When she failed to shake off the scandal, Disney wheeled out a big gun: ABC News.

In a hastily arranged May 22 segment, ABC's "PrimeTime Live" tried to bolster a sagging reputation. After Diane Sawyer acknowledged that Gifford's syndicated show and ABC are both owned by Disney, "PrimeTime" proceeded with sympathetic even fawning treatment.

The suffering of sweatshop employees got short shrift. Instead, the focus was on the anguish of Gifford, who exuded tearful innocence: "I felt like I was being of all people, being kicked in the teeth for trying to help kids." The program touted Gifford's good works for charities.

However, the next day brought a jolting PR setback. News broke that just a few blocks from her TV studio in New York City a sweatshop was turning out Kathie Lee blouses for Wal-Mart. Hired to work below minimum wage for up to 60 hours a week, many of the employees hadn't been paid.

The entrepreneur's husband, ABC sportscaster Frank Gifford, responded by rushing to the sweatshop with envelopes of $300 in cash for the mistreated workers. The incident dramatized a blind spot that the Giffords share with many journalists: placing emphasis on the momentary balm of charity rather than the long-term solution of justice.

Under pressure from labor-rights activists, Kathie Lee Gifford has announced an inspection program

Even now, Kathie Lee Gifford doesn't seem to grasp the extent of the problem. In a statement that her publicist faxed to me on May 28, Gifford claimed that "there are a handful of unethical manufacturers."

But it's not a matter of a "handful." Thousands of deplorable garment factories operate in the United States. "There are about 22,000 cutting and sewing shops, and about half of them are really sweatshops," according to Labor Secretary Robert Reich.

Under pressure from labor-rights activists, Kathie Lee Gifford has announced an inspection program for all factories producing her line of clothes. The rigor of the process remains to be seen. But at least Gifford has acknowledged a problem which is more than can be said for the Walt Disney Co..

Call it what you will, corporate damage control or Mickey Mouse evasion, but so far, Disney has managed to stay clear of media brick bats over sweatshops. Such avoidance is easier when a company owns many large media outlets.

Disney casts a giant media shadow since its purchase of ABC last year. The firm's broadcast and cable networks combine with divisions that handle TV syndication, book publishing, high-tech multimedia and, of course, movies.

But all of Disney's media glitz means nothing to impoverished women who work for pennies an hour.

Reprinted with permission of Norman Solomon. Starting in December, the Albion Monitor will carry Solomon's Media Beat column

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