JULY 16, 1996
The recent celebrity furor over "sweatshops" both here and abroad that exploit workers making name brand apparel is causing the garment industry to take a hard look at its manufacturing practices. Charlayne Hunter Gault provides a backgrounder, followed by a panel discussion.
Look here for the U.S. Department of Labor's recent advisory on "sweatshops".
SPOKESMAN: How many hours did they have to work at these machines in this garage?
MAN: Well, we were told cases of 7 AM to midnight.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: In March 1995, Labor Department officials raided this apartment complex in El Monte, California, just East of Los Angeles. Here more than 70 Thai immigrants toiled for 17 hours each day, earning 60 cents an hour, producing garments that were eventually sold to national chains. Sweatshops have been a part of America's industrial landscape for more than a hundred years. At the turn of the century, European immigrants provided the cheap labor.
Many of those shops vanished in the 1920's after a deadly fire at New York's Triangle Shirt Factory prompted reforms. But the emergence of a global economy, where low-skilled labor is readily available for low wages, has allowed sweatshops to proliferate again in the United States and around the world. And some of America's leading retailers, J.C. Penney, Walmart, and Eddie Bauer, to name a few, have been accused of exploiting workers.
The National Labor Committee, an advocacy group which gets its money from foundations and labor unions, has targeted numerous American companies, among them the Disney Company. They say Disney contracts with a Haitian company which pays its workers just 28 cents an hour to make Pocahontas and Mickey Mouse pajamas. NIKE Shoes has come under fire for its Asian factories, where employees are allegedly forced to work 60-hour weeks, paid $2.20 a day, and sometimes physically beaten on the job. Basketball star Michael Jordan, who gets paid $20 million a year to promote the company's sneakers, demurred when asked about the controversy last month.
MICHAEL JORDAN: (June 6) I think that NIKE's position to try to, you know, do what they can to make sure that everything is correct--correctly done.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Star power has catapulted the sweatshop story into the headlines. In April, talk show celebrity Kathie Lee Gifford became the target of allegations. First, Capitol Hill testimony revealed that her clothing, sold in Walmart stores, is made by under-paid teenagers in Central America. A stunned Gifford, who is herself an advocate for children's issues, was teary-eyed on her program the next morning.
KATHIE LEE GIFFORD: (May 1) Millions of dollars have gone to help children, and I truly resent this man impugning my integrity.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: And then came the charge that some of her line was actually being made at Seo Sewing, a New York City sweatshop just a few blocks from her midtown studios. Gifford and her husband, former NFL star Frank Gifford, were quick to deplore the decrepit working conditions. Frank Gifford went to Seo Sewing and handed out hundred dollar bills to their unpaid workers.
FRANK GIFFORD: (May 23) We hopefully are going to cause a little stir and change things. We need to change it.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: And in testimony yesterday before a House subcommittee, Kathie Lee Gifford said all the negative publicity had given her a moral imperative to crusade for better working conditions in garment factories around the world.
KATHIE LEE GIFFORD: And at the time, I was so stunned I felt like I'd been hit by a truck because we didn't want all kinds of applause or accolades for what we were doing but we certainly didn't feel that we should be, um, uh, crucified for trying to do the right thing as well. But I got over that so quickly, sir, when I realized that I am not the victim at all in any of this. I still go home to a beautiful home and a loving husband and two healthy children. The victims are those who are exploited on a daily, hourly basis, in factories around this world, and the saddest of those victims are the children who have been denied a childhood.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Secretary of Labor Robert Reich said a strategy of publicly naming companies that sell apparel produced by sweatshops grew out of the deplorable conditions even in this country.
SEC. REICH: Just last week on Thursday, I walked up 7th Avenue in New York City with some investigators from the Department of Labor, and we randomly went into cutting and sewing shops in the garment industry, and one out of three that we saw was violating the laws, minimum wage, overtime, unsanitary conditions, unsafe conditions. It is not that different from what we saw at the turn of the century. And if we have embarrassed some members of the industry, I am sorry, but maybe that is necessary in order to get their cooperation.
Today, Reich held a forum for members of the industry, consumer groups, human rights activists, and others, to look for solutions to the problems.