Kathie Lee Gifford is facing new allegations her clothing line was made in sweatshops, under conditions that the state’s top prosecutor said “resembled something out of a Charles Dickens novel.”
The owner of three lower Manhattan factories that made the clothing has agreed with authorities to surrender Monday on charges she violated labor laws accusing her of failing to pay minimum wage and overtime.
Through a spokesman Friday, Mrs. Gifford acknowledged her line, sold at Wal-Mart, was made in the factories where Chinese immigrants allegedly toiled 60 to 80 hours a week for low wages and sometimes no pay at all. Her own monitors looked into the factories months ago, but failed to turn up abuses because they couldn’t communicate with the Chinese workers, said spokesman Gary Lewi.
Gifford “is making every effort possible to fight sweatshops,” said another spokesman, Howard Rubenstein. “She will cooperate … to help stamp out these abuses.”
Last year, Gifford was criticized when labor activists revealed that some of her line was produced in a Honduran sweatshop. Her husband, Frank Gifford, later visited a grimy New York factory with checks for workers who said they weren’t paid.
Kathie Lee Gifford testified before Congress, attacking sweatshop owners as “cockroaches.”
In the latest investigation, State Attorney General Dennis Vacco said conditions faced by workers making Kathie Lee clothing and other labels in New York “resembled something out of a Charles Dickens novel.”
Vacco said employees at the Manhattan factories worked at times 24 hours straight and weren’t paid for one 10-week period.
As many as 100 workers at the shops were being paid below the minimum wage of $5.15 per hour, with no overtime - cheating workers out of at least $300,000, Vacco said.
State labor authorities began investigating the factories after a complaint by the Chinese Staff and Workers Association, a Chinatown group that fights for workers’ rights, and the Union of Needle and Industrial Textile Employees, which represents some of the workers.
Rubenstein said Gifford’s monitors were notified in August that there seemed to be “irregularities” in the factories. A monitoring service she hired after last year’s scandal first checked the factories Aug. 22 and said they “failed, based on incomplete employee documentation,” said another spokesman, Gary Lewi.
At the end of September, he said, the monitors returned and found the record-keeping in order. They also demanded that the factories guarantee workers would be paid fair wages.
“But we were uncomfortable, still had suspicions and placed the factories on a watch list,” Lewi said.
A day after the monitors’ September visit, state labor investigators entered the factories with translators fluent in Mandarin Chinese “and the employees revealed the problems to them,” Lewi said.
“We have learned a lesson,” he said. “We must go in with translators, replicate some of the labor department style.”
Representatives of the Kathie Lee line stopped doing business with the factories Oct. 1.
Asked why there was a gap between the August revelations and any action taken, Rubenstein said the monitors “didn’t have proof of the violations. They had very serious suspicions.”
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