Six Degrees of Exploitation: Anti-Sweatshop Activists Target Kevin Bacon

If you've ever taken a long-distance car drive, there is a good chance you've played the game "Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon." On the off-chance you haven't, this is the game -- riffing on the idea that all of the earth's people are connected by no more than six intermediate degrees -- where you try to connect movie stars to Kevin Bacon through the movies they have appeared in. Now, with the help of student anti-sweatshop activists, Kevin Bacon is getting a taste of real life "Six Degrees," and the connections are unsettling.

Meet Marlenny Franco. A textile worker in the Dominican Republic and the mother of a new born child, Marlenny stood up to her bosses at the Hanes factory where she works to stop discrimination against women and unsafe conditions. The company retaliated by firing her, along with many others who protested. And now students are holding Kevin Bacon accountable.

The connection? Kevin Bacon is a paid celebrity spokesperson for Hanes, helping to sell the company's T-shirts and underwear through a high-profile ad campaign. The students are asking Bacon, who has a reputation for liberal politics, to use his status to help stop labor abuses at Hanes' overseas textile plants.

The students, who are part of a national organization called United Students Against Sweatshops, confronted Bacon in New York at the premiere of his film Death Sentence. According to Connor Murphy, a Fordham University student who held a banner at the protest reading "Kevin Bacon: Tell Hanes to Stop the Exploitation of Workers," Mr. Bacon came up to the protestors and promised he would look into the situation.

But since then, say the activists, there has been no follow-up from Mr. Bacon's camp and the situation at the factory has only gotten worse. In response, the activists have launched a national campaign, with student protestors showing up to challenge Mr. Bacon at events across the country -- from the Emmy awards, where they say their protest won a brief glimpse on national TV, to small-town concerts by the Bacon Brothers, the rock band led by Kevin Bacon and his lesser-known brother, Michael.

In keeping with the times, they have even launched a website, titled Six Degrees of, and a group on Facebook, which boasts nearly 1,000 members, all to shine a light on conditions at the Dominican factory.

The students' claims about sweatshop conditions at the Dominican Hanes factory are backed up by an investigation by a leading labor rights monitoring organization, the Worker Rights Consortium, which counts 175 colleges and universities among its members. The organization released a report in June, finding that workers at the TOS Dominicana factory, owned and operated by Hanes, are subjected to unlawful forced overtime and psychological abuse and that the company has systemically fired workers who have chosen to join together in a union.

The situation is indeed disturbing. Workers at the Hanes plant earn about $1.25 an hour. Workers interviewed for this article reported that they had to borrow money most weeks just to cover food, rent and medicine for their families, and often had to forgo extra expenses such as telephones. With such low wages, many workers reported that to make ends meet they had to work extra shifts, amounting to up to 72 hours in a week.

One single mother who was working two additional night shifts to make ends meet said "By the end of the week my body is totally worn out, with extreme back pain. After working two shifts, I spend most of my days off sleeping. In reality I don't have any time to be with my son, because the time I am home I am exhausted or sleeping."

The long hours have taken a toll on workers' health, particularly for women. Several workers reported having to be hospitalized because of the strain of working long hours under extreme pressure while breathing lint-filled air. One woman was forced to quit because within six months of working in the factory she began to get heavy menstruation up to three times a month. Another woman developed such severe symptoms that her doctor diagnosed her with asthma after just six months of working in the factory.

Marlenny was also hospitalized due to the strain of the work on her body. Though Hanes had deducted money from her weekly paycheck to cover health insurance, it had not filed her insurance information. As a result, she was forced to borrow money to pay for her hospital bills. She said, "The company didn't take responsibility for it, even though I got sick at work. For their negligence I had to pay 6,000 pesos out of my pocket. Five months later, when I was fired, I was still paying back the loan. I am not the only one who has been taken advantage of with the work insurance, but the company just doesn't care."

Those who have protested have faced harsh retaliation. According to the Worker Rights Consortium, the factory has targeted union members for dismissal -- in a five-day period in April, for example, the company fired 31 workers, of whom 30 were union members. The worker who leads the factory's union was recently subjected to a death threat.

So the protest campaign continues. And many are counting on Kevin Bacon to use his real-world connections put an end to some all-too-real exploitation.


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