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Sweatshop Use Still Common, Report Says Labor Group Lists Horrid Conditions At Companies Used By U.S. Firms

Thu., March 19, 1998

Despite promises from corporate America to stop using overseas sweatshop labor, young women in China are working 15-hour days for a few dollars to make designer-label clothes, a private U.S. group reported Wednesday.

“Workers were paid pennies to produce these things,” Charles Kernaghan, director of the National Labor Committee, said as he stood at a table overflowing with silk blouses and Kathie Lee Gifford handbags.

The committee, which receives about 13 percent of its funding from organized labor in the United States, said its report was compiled from interviews with workers conducted by local Chinese women.

Most of the 18 big-name companies and labels listed in the 85-page report - from Kathie Lee Gifford and Ann Taylor to Wal-Mart and J.C. Penney - said they don’t condone such working conditions by subcontractors and promised to investigate.

Kernaghan’s group made headlines a couple of years ago when it reported clothing sold under Gifford’s label by Wal-Mart, J.C. Penney and Kmart was produced in Honduran sweatshops. After investigating, the television personality admitted the group’s findings were correct.

A spokesman for Gifford noted that since then, Gifford has been at the forefront of an effort to ensure U.S.-sold goods aren’t made by poorly treated workers. She also is a member of a White House task force that agreed with American companies last April on a voluntary code of conduct that forbids buying from foreign sweatshops.

“Kathie Lee said a year and a half ago that she would not tolerate sweatshop conditions,” said her spokesman Richard Hofstetter. He said Gifford hired a company to spot-check factories and pulls out of overseas factories that treats workers badly.

Hofstetter said the alleged conditions detailed in the new report would be investigated. One incident involved young women working at a Chinese factory making Kathie Lee Gifford handbags for Wal-Mart for 13 cents an hour, 10 hours a day without days off.

According to the U.S. corporate code of conduct, workers must have days off, cannot be forced to work overtime and must be paid a living wage. In China, a subsistence wage is 87 cents an hour, the report said.

The Kernaghan group’s investigation of 21 Chinese factories that produce garments for export to the United States found that 60- to 96-hour work weeks of up to seven days and 10- to 15-hour shifts were common. Most laborers were migrant women in their teens or early 20s. Wages ranged from 13 to 28 cents an hour. The women were housed in crowded dorms and fed meals consisting mostly of rice and little meat.

Pro-labor lawmakers, including Rep. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., complained that U.S. corporations are using low-wage labor overseas at the cost of American jobs.

“Corporate America has taken gross advantage and is exploiting desperate people,” Sanders charged.

Betsy Reithemeyer, a spokeswoman for Wal-Mart, denied that the company exploits overseas workers. She questioned the labor group’s methods. The report information is a year old - some factories mentioned are no longer at the same address - and the charges weren’t brought to the attention of the companies, she said.

Ann Taylor said its contract allows the company to make surprise visits, and when violations are found, the contractor must make improvements. “If the problem is not resolved, we cease doing business with that factory,” the company said in a statement.

Duncan Muir, a spokesman for J.C. Penney, said the company doesn’t believe any of its subcontractors - which are given work by a primary contractor - violate Chinese labor laws or abuse workers.

Liz Claiborne, among the biggest users of Chinese labor among clothing makers, said the company uses only contractors that pay at least minimum wages and treat workers well.

Other companies listed in the report include Adidas, Bugle Boy, Dayton Hudson Corp., Disney, Ellen Tracy, Esprit Group, Federated Department Stores, Kmart Corp., The Limited, May Co., Nike, Ralph Lauren, Reebok International and Sears, Roebuck & Co.


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