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Child Laborer Has Words For Celebrity 15-Year-Old Honduran Girl Tells Of Sweatshop Abuses

Thu., May 30, 1996

A 15-year-old Honduran girl pleaded Wednesday for a meeting with Kathie Lee Gifford to tell her how young women have been assaulted and groped in a plant making clothes for the TV star’s label.

“If I could talk to Kathie Lee, I would ask her to help us, to end the maltreatment, so that they would stop yelling at us and hitting us,” said Wendy Diaz.

A spokesman for Gifford said Diaz will get her chance.

“She wants to hear her story firsthand, and Kathie Lee will exert every effort to help solve this problem of child labor and sweatshops,” said Howard Rubenstein.

Diaz - an orphan who began working at the Global Fashions plant in Honduras at age 13 to help support herself and three younger brothers - told her story at a news conference with human rights activists and lawmakers.

Speaking through a translator, the teen said supervisors “insult us and yell at us to work faster. Sometimes, they throw the garment in your face or grab and shove you.”

She said workers toiled up to 70 hours a week for less than $22. The demand for turning out Kathie Lee pants was so high that “sometimes they kept us working all night long, until 6:30 a.m.” Her plea to be excused to attend night school was refused.

The girls - most in their mid-teens - suffered sexual harassment, she said. “Sometimes the managers would touch the girls” on their legs or buttocks, “pretending it’s a joke,” she said.

Diaz said workers were told they would be fired instantly if they tried to organize - and that she expected to be blacklisted for coming to the United States to speak out.

The plant turned out clothes for Kathie Lee’s Wal-Mart label. Since Wal-Mart dropped the plant, the workers are making clothes for Eddie Bauer and J. Crew, according to labor activist Charles Kernaghan.

Kernaghan, director of the National Labor Committee, accused three prominent clothing marketers of selling clothing made by underage Honduran workers.

Kernaghan said the J. Crew and Eddie Bauer clothing is produced in Honduras by Global Fashions, the same company, the organization said, that manufactured the Kathie Lee line. Kernaghan said Kmart’s Jaclyn Smith line is produced in the Seolim factory in the small town of Baracoa, Honduras. He claimed that the child laborers there are mistreated.

But representatives of all three companies vigorously denied the allegations, according to the National Labor Committee.

“When the Kathie Lee accusations came out, we went back to our records for several years,” said Cheryl Engstrom of Eddie Bauer. “We looked at all our contractors and found no relationship with Global Fashion.”

Robert Bernard, president of J. Crew, said his company checked its records as far back as 1992 and found no orders placed with the Honduran company. “We called our subcontractors and got their assurances that they don’t do any business with Global Fashion.”

Bernard said J. Crew “demands written statements that no child or convict labor is used in manufacturing our goods. You only have one good name, we believe strongly in that name. We wouldn’t do anything to tarnish it.”

Kmart spokeswoman Michele Jasukaitis, called the accusations “completely false.”

“None of Jaclyn Smith’s clothing line is even manufactured in Honduras,” she said.

Wal-Mart initially denied that Global Fashions employed child workers but later severed its ties with the company, according to the National Labor Committee.

Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., said exploitation continues because “celebrities hide behind retailers, retailers hide behind contractors, and they hide behind subcontractors” in evading responsibility.


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