Santa's Little Sweatshop
Every morning in America, children awake in warm sheeted beds, changing from pajamas into clothes before they grab their knapsacks and head out the door for school. Chances are that at least one of those items -- sheets, clothing, knapsack -- is emblazoned with a picture from a children's story or fairy tale they love.The mythic sagas of good and evil in which children and the forces of good often triumph were first translated to the movie screen by Walt Disney and his early band of animators, giving children images to carry out of the movie theaters and mentally hug at night when the dark got, well, just too dark.But it is the 1997 holiday season. Now children in other countries, such as Haiti, labor in dark, dank conditions -- often behind metal gates and barbed wire, overseen by armed guards -- making 101 Dalmatians and Pocahontas toys and clothes for American kids, whose parents routinely pay $20 for such items. These young workers received six cents an hour in Haiti to produce goods for a company under contract with the Disney Corporation. After public exposure of the sweatshop there, the company relocated to China, where workers make an average of 13 cents an hour, according to Charles Kernaghan, director of the National Labor Committee, the group spearheading "The Holiday Season of Conscience" during this year's holiday shopping frenzy.Already, the national campaign to educate and motivate American consumers not to buy sweatshop products has produced petition drives, including high school and college students demanding that their schools not purchase sweatshop items, and planned activities around the country such as candlelight vigils, "no-sweat" Santas and public sewing of economic justice banners.According to the latest figures from the International Labor Organization (ILO), nearly 120 million children under the age of 14 spend their young lives working full time, while another 125 million kids are counted as part-time workers. Globally, nearly 61 percent of all child workers reside in Asia; about 80 million, or 32 percent, are in Africa; and about 7 percent, or 17.5 million, are in Latin America."To have child labor means lower costs; because wages are very low, children never complain, and they work long hours with no overtime pay," said Oded Grajew, director and president of the Abrinq Foundation for Children's Rights in Brazil, in an interview with the Multinational Monitor. Over 150,000 adult American workers have lost their jobs in the clothing industry in recent years, as U.S. companies relocated to parts of the world where governments both welcome and protect corporations that profit off the backs of the countries' youngest citizens. According to the American Textile Manufacturers Institute, 60 percent of the $184 billion spent each year by Americans on apparel purchases is for imports.Over the last 15 years, free trade zones have become an increasingly popular economic mechanism for America's multinational corporations to manufacture goods elsewhere and then shipped back the U.S. for sale, often paying little or no tariffs in the manufacturing country or for importing back into the U.S. According to a 1995 report on textiles manufacturing in El Salvador, "Free trade zones are areas constructed with the express goal of providing an attractive investment package to national and foreign export companies. Investors are provided the necessary infrastructure (warehouses, electricity, water, transportation, etc.) for a successful enterprise. Companies in free trade zones in El Salvador enjoy a plethora of benefits including exemption from taxes on imports, property and assets." That same report notes, "Most of the companies in El Salvador's free trade zones are U.S. or Southeast Asian-owned textile companiesÉ. According to the Central Reserve Bank, textile exports grew by almost 50 percent in 1994 (totaling $431 million), 92 percent of which went to the U.S."Little wonder that the United States now enjoys major debtor status in the world's trade deficit. And while American workers are rendered jobless and under-employed, company executives are benefiting from increased profit margins. In the last 23 years, the average pay of corporate executives has jumped from 34 times the average American worker's salary to 180 times that wage, according to Jeff Faux, president of the Economic Policy Institute.Corporations such as Nike, Wal-Mart, J.C. Penney, Gap, Disney, Liz Claiborne and Levi Strauss reap millions in profits from global maneuvering. "It's like checkers, you chase them around the board," said the Rev. David Dyson, who founded the NLC in 1981 and now heads "People of Faith," which represents anti-sweatshop religious groups and consumer organizations.Many of the free trade zones, particularly in Asia and Central America, have created sweatshop conditions that embody the worst historical business practices. "If a product was made in a free trade zone, it's likely to be a sweatshop product," said Ellen Braune of the National Labor Committee.The 19th-century term sweatshop is used today to again characterize corporate exploitation of child labor, representing the most vulnerable part of a production process in which work is sweated from the lowest tier of workers by subcontractors who in turn contract with clothing or toy manufacturers. There appears to be a convenient fluidness for retail corporations concerning the identities of their subcontractors. According to the Albion Monitor, this summer, representatives from the posh Nordstrom's chain were quoted as saying the company has 65,000 contractors and that contractors change constantly, rendering monitoring of working conditions impossible."Retailers and manufacturers at the top of the pyramid dictate how much workers earn in wages by controlling the contract price given to the contractor," according to the group Sweatshop Watch. "With these prices declining each year by as much as 25 percent, contractors are forced to 'sweat' a profit from garment workers by working them long hours at low wages."A global economy has resulted in global production and price competition, which according to several labor experts, is why children make such a disposable and pliable workforce. According to a recent report, "By the Sweat and Toil," by the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL), "research shows that many children are hired because they are more easily exploited than adults. Employers prefer children because they are docile, incapable of collective bargaining and willing to work to support their families or simply to survive."A major thrust to ending corporate exploitation of child labor is that a living wage commensurate with a country's standard of living should be paid to adult workers there, not children. For example, garment workers receive the following average hourly wages: Burma,18 cents; China, 68 cents; El Salvador, $1.38; Haiti, 49 cents; Honduras, $1.31; Indonesia, 34 cents; Mexico, $1.08; Nicaragua, 76 cents; and Vietnam, 26 cents. However, those paltry figures often mask the actual sums paid to child workers, which are often even lower.In February, Tony Vento, a Cleveland-based anti-sweatshop activist and member of the Inter Religious Task Force on Central America, visited El Salvador with a group of Clevelanders. There they found young female workers, most of whom were under the age of 18, toiling in garment factories. "Eighty-five percent of the young workers were the sole breadwinner for their families," he said. "For the average family of five, their monthly food budget for rice, beans, coffee, sugar and oil is $132 a month. The average salary there for work weeks of up to sixty hours is $129."For Kernaghan of the National Labor Committee, "Living wages must be tied to the basic cost of living in the societies. Companies can't hide behind some minimum wage, there's no way getting paid 15 cents an hour in Nicaragua or 30 cents an hour in Honduras is a living wage. No one can live on this."A factory life of low wages and long hours is producing whole societies in which, "children are dying. There is malnourishment, dysentery, women are aging," said Ellen Braune of the NLC.Often, young workers experience kidney problems because they are forbidden to go to the bathroom, said Rev. Dyson. "There is a tremendous amount of sexual harassment. They whack the girls with the garments if they make a mistake. We see these very young girls who can sew, who have forced overtime with regular shifts of 10 hours and when a big order comes in, they will have to work two shifts."It was the public spotlighting of abuse of young girls producing her Wal-Mart clothing line at a Honduran sweatshop called Global Fashion that moved television host Kathie Lee Gifford, whose show is owned by Disney, to tears in 1996. "Don't cry for me, Kathie Lee Gifford," said Dyson flatly. "For an afternoon's work of approving sketches, okaying Wal-Mart and the smiling face label, she was getting $10 million. She was making more money off the clothing than the TV show."Dyson emphasized it was only after several human rights groups threatened Gifford with the legal action of discovery, which would have forced public disclosure of her label's business practices, that she was willing to meet with anti-sweatshop activists. According to Dyson, because Kathie Lee and Archbishop Cardinal O'Connor share the same publicist, a meeting was arranged at the archbishop's residence with human rights' activists, Kathie Lee and Wendy Diaz, a fifteen-year-old worker from the Global Fashion plant. At the time, a joint statement was issued indicating Gifford's expectation that Wal-Mart would ensure that Global Fashion executives establish independent human rights monitoring at the Honduran plant. Instead, according to a recent NLC report, Wal-Mart pulled-up stakes in Honduras and subcontracted work for its "Faded Glory" garments to several factories in Nicaragua.A Hard Copy investigation earlier this month reported that Wal-Mart, along with J.C. Penney and Kmart, now had operations in Nicaragua, where workers were paid a base wage of 15 cents an hour, compared to the base rate of 31 cents an hour at Gifford's production line in Honduras. Documented in that report were workers' living conditions, housing made of huts with fabric doors, tin or thatched roofs and cardboard walls. Also reported was the common problem of corporate environmental pollution. According to a release, "Bleaches, solvents and dyes are washed into outdoor, open pits. Workers also complain that they burn their hands with the bleach and chemicals used to make stone-washed jeans."Late last week, Kernaghan was fielding calls concerning reports from Nicaragua that workers were being abused and harassed in that Nicaraguan factory zone because of the television report.One way to keep the spotlight on corporate conduct is through the use of independent monitors, comprised of local religious and human rights leaders who are known and trusted by an area's workers. Both Dyson and Kernaghan point with pride to the agreement struck in 1995 with The Gap Corporation's Taiwanese-owned Mandarin factory in El Salvador, even though according to an NLC reports, The Gap has nearly 20 contractors in Honduras, whose plants are not open to external monitoring. The Gap does business with over 1,000 contractors in 50 countries.However, it is The Gap agreement that anti-sweatshop activists cite as an example of a successful application of corporate codes of conduct tied to external monitoring by religious and human rights groups there. In 1995, workers at The Gap factory were publicly documented through paycheck stubs and time cards as being underage and working long hours in substandard conditions for subsistent wages. "We conducted a nine-month campaign there," said Dyson. "Because this was a coalition of church and human rights groups, The Gap could not call us a 'special interest' as they were calling labor groups.""Corporate codes of conduct on wages and working conditions don't work by hiring external monitors such as Nike did in Vietnam with Ernst and Young (an accounting firm)," said Braune of the NLC. "If you have nothing to hide and really want to be transparent, then use the religious rights and human rights groups in those countries. Conditions have vastly improved at The Gap plant in El Salvador, there is no forced overtime and an actual dialogue has ensued."It is the goal of the Holiday Season of Conscience, said Kernaghan, to motivate American consumers to dialogue with American corporations doing business in international sweatshops staffed with child labor. "We don't call for boycotts, we don't want to hurt these companies financially," said Kernaghan. "We're asking people to sign the petition and challenge these companies to do the right thing that we as consumers don't want child labor in sweatshops."The national petition drive started on October 4, the NLC's "National Day of Conscience," to kickoff the holiday shopping awareness campaign. Since then, Kernaghan said the five-member NLC office has been overwhelmed by Americans' response. "Hundreds of petitions are showing up every day. It's almost too big for us," he said. "There are tons from Kansas and Missouri. Cities I never heard of are sending us petitions. We're getting them from nuns in California, first graders writing in big block letter. The only thing driving this is awareness of social pressure that people want to stop children in sweatshops."Several anti-child labor activists interviewed said the sweatshop campaign is not only crucial to heighten the visibility of child sweatshops during the profitable shopping season, but also to leverage consumer pressure on the Apparel Industry Partnership, which was formed April 14 by President Clinton in response to media coverage and public outcry regarding Kathie Lee Gifford's fracas and The Gap's business practices in El Salvador. The 18-member association is composed of representatives from groups such as the National Consumers League, The Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility, The International Labor Rights Fund and America's textile workers' union -- Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees (UNITE), along with many of the nation's top apparel executives. Thus far, the partnership's voluntary guidelines for the "Workplace Code of Conduct" issued by the group last spring have been derided by many anti-child labor advocates because the recommendations are not mandatory and do not tie a living wage and non-use of child labor to external monitoring by independent human rights groups. The agreement's current language states: "No person shall be employed at an age younger than 15 (or 14 where the law of the country of manufacture allows)É"The group is to report to Clinton by December 31 on a final agreement, which will be the first effort to establish industry-wide human rights standards, according to NLC literature.As opposed to requiring a living wage be paid to overseas workers employed or subcontracted by American corporations, the current Workplace Codes encourage a minimum industry-mandated wage be paid. "Codes of conduct won't mean anything if they are not strengthened by a living wage in those countries," said Kernaghan.According to the group Sweatshop Watch, in Indonesia, the government itself has admitted that at the country's minimum wage of $2.50 per day, a family could not meet its basic needs. But, last spring, when "nearly 5000 Nike workers in Indonesia were asking for a minimum wage of $2.50 a day, a Nike spokesman complained that with these demands, 'Indonesia could be reaching a point where it's pricing itself out of the market.'"Corporate representatives on the taskforce include Kathie Lee Gifford, Philip Knight from Nike and employees from Liz Claiborne. L.L. Bean Inc., Reebok International and Phillips-Van Heusen. While the taskforce calls for external monitoring, the language of its agreement makes corporate participation voluntary, but as Kernaghan points out even that approach is causing problems. "Two companies have already left É (from participating in the code of conduct), Warnaco and Ellen Tracy," he said. "They claimed they were doing it because of the independent monitoring, they said the monitoring was too threatening.""Warnaco said that independent monitoring by religious leaders and human rights groups would hurt the release of trade secrets," he said. "I had to laugh. There are no trade secrets here, they make women's underwear."Perhaps fearing less of a Barbie doll pile under the Christmas tree this year, Mattel Inc., the world's largest toy manufacturer, announced its own code of conduct on November 20, complete with external monitoring of all suppliers. Most Barbie dolls are made in China, Indonesia and Malaysia. Last year, Dateline NBC featured a report on 13-year-old girls making Barbie dolls in an Indonesia toy factory for about $2 a day, according to a New York Times report. Kenner, a subsidiary of the Hasbro Toy company, maker of the popular "Magic School Bus" items, also has numerous production facilities in China.Several persons interviewed said that well-funded corporate groups with expert spin doctors are working even harder since the recent defeat of Clinton's "Fast Track" legislation to ensure multinational corporations are not restricted by codes and monitoring.For the anti-child labor supporters, the Holiday Season of Conscience provides U.S. consumers with an opportunity to take a position on products made for children, by children. "Once the discussion involves human rights, the truth always wins," said Kernaghan. "People have real power. We're the biggest market in the world."Note: The National Labor Committee has developed a list of major corporate violators regarding international child labor. We have been told the list will be released Friday mid-day, Eastern Time, through the NLC office at 212-242-3002.