Out of the Hands of Babes: Opposition Against Kid-Manufactured Products Runs Strong
Walt Disney Co., long deemed the artisan of children's fun and fantasy, isn't winning friends among child advocates of late. Based on a tip from an El Monte, Calif., sweatshop laborer, U.S. immigration and labor officials in August 1995 raided two neighboring manufacturing facilities only to find, among a glut of violations, a 12-year-old girl trimming fabric for Disney's Classic Pooh label. While Disney does not bear any legal responsibility for it's subcontractor's practices, at least one organization outside the government's rein isn't going to let it slide. To prod retail companies, in this case Disney, into taking greater responsibility for labor abuses in plants where their products are made, the full-service brokerage firm Progressive Asset Management (PAM) has filed-- on behalf of a handful of Disney shareholders--two related resolutions for company management and shareholders to address at its annual meeting. The first requests that the company enforce strong supplier standards; a second, backup resolution aims to highlight the widening discrepancy between Disney's corporate executive salaries and that of company and contract workers. Dedicated to "socially responsible investing," PAM has filed seven similar resolutions this year against a broad spectrum of corporations that either have poor employee relations records, are high environment polluters or gain significant revenues from weapons-related defense contracts.Within the Disney landscape, PAM points to violations at plants both domestic and abroad that make clothing and toys for the company's Consumer Products Division, which in 1995 had $2.2 billion in sales and accounted for 21 percent of Disney's operating profit. The violations include failure to pay back wages, safety violations and use of child labor. In one of the more high-profile incidents, Haitian workers manufacturing Disney licensed products make only 28 cents an hour, or 7 cents for a garment sold in the U.S. for $11, said the group."We feel it's not a sustainable wage," said Tom Van Dyck, president of PAM's progressive portfolio services. "The bottom line is we're [representing] the shareholders--the owners--and [Disney's] managers need to deal with this in a responsible manner." To Disney's credit, "They've been keeping the dialogue open," he added.Needless to say, Mickey Mouse and Co. do not stand alone on the exploitative manufacturing lines; in fact, child labor and sweatshop issues have garnered considerable visibility on the national political radar screen this year. Following Congressional testimony this July about child labor improprieties by talk show extraordinaire Kathie Lee Gifford--whose polished image was tarnished last April when fair labor advocates revealed that her Wal-Mart clothing line was sewn by underpaid teenagers in both New York and Honduras--the Labor Department snapped to attention. Labor Secretary Robert Reich went so far as to commence a "Fashion Industry Forum," attended by such prominent players as Wal-Mart, Levi Strauss & Co., Kmart Corp. and Nordstrom, in an effort to focus on what could be done to battle child labor and abuses. Among the more prevailing ideas batted around was to launchmonitoring and "no sweat" labeling programs administered by the manufacturers. On Capitol Hill, Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., is going one step further by not only proposing that similar consumer information labels be required, but but he also is proposing a ban on imported products made by children. Democratic Sen. Ted Kennedy (among others) is also said to be drafting legislation, which would make manufacturers and retailers jointly liable for labor violations in the garment industry. Today, more than half the 22,000 U.S. garment contractors pay less than the minimum wage and provide often appalling working conditions, according to labor boss Reich. To help shed light on such abuses, every three months the department places makes public manufacturers dealing with sweatshops. After such warning from the agency, a handful of manufacturers including the Gap, Levi Strauss and Sears, have won praise for their efforts to halt exploitative practices.But when push comes to shove, it seems much the industry is trying to slow the momentum and avoid cutting into profits. After all, who will bear the brunt of the costs?As reported in The Progressive last month, Larry Martin, president of the American Apparel Manufacturers Association, was quick to tout that industry favors tougher labor laws to crack down on illegal shops. But when asked by an audience member whether he would endorse legislation to make manufacturers and retailers jointly liable for criminal abuses, the answer was clear: "It's a concept we are obviously not in love with."