No Holidays Here

All across the nation, activists against sweatshops have been galvanizing support to boycott merchandise that promotes unsafe, non-union work conditions -- just in time for the holidays.

The young women's clothing retailer Forever 21 and Disney have been targets for customer boycotts. Meanwhile the National Mobilization Against Sweatshops (NMAS) in New York have been trying to gather support to assist garment workers who have been hit by financial instability since Sept. 11.

In Southern California, the Garment Worker Center (GWC) -- a non-profit, community-based organization in Los Angeles -- teamed up with garment workers, students and community supporters to voice discontent with Forever 21. On Dec. 5, GWC held a press conference, launching their campaign called, "Shop with a Conscience this Holiday Season."

Speakers, including actress Susan Sarandon, contested the gross safety and unlawful wages of the subcontracting garment manufacturers of Forever 21. Joann Lo, organizer for GWC, pointed out that many of the garment workers were not paid appropriate wages, not given breaks and worked in factories infested with rats and roaches, with no drinking water facilities.

"The worker who sewed the hem of a blouse was paid four cents for each hem," Lo said. "It sold in retail for $13. Forever 21 is making a profit off the exploitation of these workers."

The GWC gathered 2,000 signatures on petitions and postcards and picketed outside the corporate office of Forever 21. Do Won Chang and his wife Jin Sook Chang, owners of the 125 stores, which are expected to make $500 million in sales in 2002, are currently in a legal battle that began on Sept. 6, 2001 by 19 garment workers who alleged that the owners were guilty of paying sub-minimum wages, withholding overtime pay, and maintaining unsanitary and dangerous conditions in six different sweatshops. So far, the Changs have refused to accept responsibility for the conditions in their subcontracted factories.

"We believe that legally and morally [the Changs] are [responsible]," Lo said. "The workers sold clothes with their labels and recognize these clothes in Forever 21 stores and [the owners] are making a profit off the exploitation of these workers."

Do Won Chang counter-sued the workers and their supporters for defamation, libel, unfair business competition and nuisance in March 2002. After public pressure, the company decided to drop charges against the workers but continued to press charges against anti-sweatshop organizers. The case is currently in the Court of the Ninth Circuit of Appeals, awaiting mediation between the plaintiff and defendant.

"Forever 21 is based here [in California] and they have said in the press that they do 95 percent of the production in the U.S., making this company responsible for working conditions in subcontractor companies," Lo explains.. "[Our boycott] would really make an impact for garment workers in California."

She adds, "Workers would like Forever 21 to provide training for the contractors and workers so everyone knows the laws and knows what needs to be followed."

The Disney-Bangladesh Connection In San Francisco, the Progressive Bengali Network (PBN) ran a campaign to raise awareness of the disenfranchised workers in Bangladesh who produce Disney products. PBN members picketed in front of the Disney store in Union Square on Dec. 7.

Like GWC, PBN vowed to educate consumers about conscientious shopping by sending Michael Eisner, CEO of Disney, letters and petitions with over 600 signatures.

Activists passed out leaflets and approached customers in front of the store to encourage shoppers to be educated about Disney's policies toward sweatshop workers abroad.

PBN claims that for the last eight years, young women at the Shah Makdhum factory in Bangladesh have been forced to work over 15 hours a day, seven days a week, without maternity benefits, enduring inhumane treatment and being paid 15 cents for every $17.99 Disney shirt that they sewed. PBN also alleges that Disney responded to workers' protests by pulling their jobs out of the factory and leaving workers jobless.

As a means to raise awareness of the conditions in Bangladesh, PBN member Anirvan Chatterjee argues that shoppers should engage in letter-writing campaigns and send the message to corporate America that poor work conditions will not be tolerated.

Said Chatterjee: "The average Christmas shopper has a lot of power to affect corporate practices. A letter or a phone call from an American customer means a lot more to Disney than words of sweatshop workers in South Asia. This campaign is a great opportunity for us to support workers in Bengal and other developing regions by speaking out as Americans."

He also points out that customers could patronize local, handicraft, non-sweatshop products. Organizations like Global Exchange, Sweat X and No Sweat Apparel advocate merchandise that is not produced by sweatshop labor.

"I don't think there is any easy way [to be a smart shopper]," Chatterjee said. "The biggest issue is making sure that people are aware of issues and are willing to take responsibility for that."

Support is Crucial

Karah Newton, organizer of the National Mobilization Against Sweatshops in New York, agrees that support for workers is crucial. She contends that after Sept. 11, garment workers in Chinatown were hit financially and many workers were displaced. The garment industry was shut down for months and garment workers were not being aided by Sept. 11 funds, she said.

Many workers scrambled to hang onto their healthcare benefits to prove they earned enough income to receive such monies. Many workers borrowed money to appear as if they were employed, Newton said.

"Beyond ground zero, the federal guidelines made it impossible for the majority of working people in New York to receive disaster assistance," she said. "What we're trying to say is that these sweatshop conditions don't end at the border of Chinatown, and they're spreading and affecting us all."

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