One Man's Fight Against Sweatshops

Mickey Mouse is trying to resist Charles Kernaghan.

This might be a mistake. Ask entertainer Kathie Lee Gifford, the Liz Claiborne company, Eddie Bauer, or GAP chief executive officer Millard Drexler.

Mr. Kernaghan, the executive director of the small, activist National Labor Committee (NLC) in New York, has publicly connected these individuals and companies to profiting from using sweatshop labor in offshore garment factories. After initial denials, they took steps to improve conditions.

Kernaghan's latest target is the Walt Disney Company, which he charges with allowing Pocahontas and Mickey Mouse pajamas to be made in a sweatshop in Haiti by a company under contract to the Mouse Kingdom.

"Wages are 28 cents an hour there," says Kernaghan, who visited Haiti in April. "There is rampant sexual abuse, and the workers are yelled at constantly by the management."

Charles Champlin, a spokesman for the Disney Company in Los Angeles, denies conditions are bad, saying that a Disney representative went to Haiti and found no violations. "The factory conditions in Haiti are better than some in the US, and the wages paid are appropriate by the measure of what is the legal minimum wage in Haiti," he says.

As clothing sales in the US have slumped in the last six years, many retailers have cut costs by contracting with offshore factories in countries desperate for jobs like Haiti, or many in Central America and Asia. Many have a history of supporting sweatshops and using child labor.

Since a visit to Central America a decade ago, Kernaghan has been a one-man armada confronting offshore sweatshops - writing letters, testifying at congressional hearings, confronting celebrities who promote popular lines of clothing. "This is a privilege to do this kind of work," he says of the long hours spent researching and confronting industry giants. "Once you've gone to Haiti or these other countries, and seen the conditions," he says, "how can you not help?"

His work, along with that of other activists, has clearly had an impact. Rep. George Miller (D) of California says Kernaghan "has had a huge effect. He's forced the biggest discussion we've had about sweatshops in a decade."

In 1994, the NLC produced a video, "Zoned For Slavery," about child labor in Honduras that was seen by a congressional committee and later at the White House. As a result, about $160 million in US trade benefits was denied contracting companies in Central America because of labor violations seen in the video.

The same year, as public awareness of sweatshop abuses began to increase, more than 200 clothing designers who use unionized shops in the US pledged to hire only those contractors abroad who adhered to local and international labor standards. The designers included Donna Karan, Anne Klein, and Ralph Lauren.

But the incident that triggered the greatest concern in the US was a 1995 raid on a sweatshop in El Monte, Calif. Workers there were virtually incarcerated as slave labor.

Following that incident, the Department of Labor started publishing a "Trendsetters" list that identifies retailers and manufacturers who monitor labor conditions in their factories - among them: Guess, Levi-Strauss, Land's End, Patagonia, and Nordstrom.

As part of a strategy to eradicate sweatshops, US Secretary of Labor Robert Reich has invited dozens of manufacturers and retailers to a forum on July 16 at Marymount University in Arlington, Va.

The forum, which Kernaghan will attend, will discuss how to independently monitor contractors, form strategies for ensuring labor law compliance. It will also "provide a road map" for retailers.

Testifying before Congress in April, Kernaghan zeroed in on the practice of some US celebrities promoting apparel that is not widely known to be made in offshore sweatshops. He noted that clothing for Kathie Lee Gifford's line was being made in Honduras by a Wal-Mart contractor, with underage and pregnant women earning 31 cents an hour for an 18-hour work day.

Mrs. Gifford denied any prior knowledge of the conditions. "Now that I am aware of these problems, Frank [her husband] and I are going to do everything we ... can to make sure the situation changes," she said recently.

"One of the reasons our work has been successful over the last few years," says Kernaghan, a former psychology professor, "is that these big companies can't go out in front of the American people and defend 28-cents-an-hour wages, and then explain why the workers get only 1 percent of the sales price of the garment. "

The Rev. David Dyson, of the Lafayette Avenue Presbyterian Church in Brooklyn, N.Y., and former director of the NLC, identifies Kernaghan's "passion" for justice as his prime motivation. "Charlie took the time to spend time with the workers and not just blow in on a delegation," says Mr. Dyson. "He came away with a passion to change what he saw."

Kernaghan and the NLC undertook one of their most visible campaigns in 1995 against the GAP. Along with a coalition of religious and civic leaders, they demanded that the company stop garment worker abuses in an El Salvador factory under a GAP contract. After initially denying the abuses, the GAP relented, and later signed a precedent-setting code-of-conduct agreement to improve factory conditions.

The NLC has a staff of four and a budget of about $250,000, provided mostly by private foundations and labor unions. The NLC board includes the presidents of 25 major US unions.

Contrary to the policies of many unions, the NLC wants US retailers to stay in foreign ports, but improve working conditions and ensure human rights. "'Clean up the sweatshops,' is what we tell them," Kernaghan says.

In the case of Disney, which has contracts with manufacturers in some 40 countries, Kernaghan applauds the company for being in Haiti, but calls for a wage increase to 58 cents an hour. In addition, he says the Haitian workers want to meet with a Disney representative to share their story and show their living conditions. They want the legal right to organize, and they want local human rights organizations to monitor factory conditions, according to Kernaghan. "These are hardly shocking demands from us," he says.

In a 13-page letter sent to Disney president Michael Eisner on May 29, Kernaghan objects to a global economy that he says pits US against Haitian workers. "It is a race to the bottom over who will accept the lowest wages and the most miserable working conditions."

In Haiti, New York-based L.V. Myles is the Disney contractor overseeing the sleepwear factory. "We have been in Haiti for 12 years," says Paul Miller, president of the company. "It is a nice factory, and [has] as good working conditions as you can find in an offshore facility...."

But Kernaghan says public transportation for workers to the factory costs 37 cents a day. "If a worker buys the small breakfast and lunch too," he says, "he or she has spent $1.61 out of their full day's pay of $2.22."

Even though most of the countries with sweatshops are members of the International Labor Organization (ILO), Andrew Samet, Associate Deputy Undersecretary of Labor for International Affairs, says issues of workers' rights in countries need enforcement mechanisms beyond traditional ILO public censure.

"This is a debate going on now in the ILO," he says, "how to bring pressure for compliance with basic human rights standards. There is a growing concern that the basic rules of the game have to be applied uniformly in a global economy."

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