Vol. III, Bulletin No. 6. March 23, 1998
New Revelations: Even Kathie Lee Gifford Disappoints
Pinpointing 'Made-in-China' SweatshopsChina's cruel sweatshops continue to exploit millions of young women who make toys, dolls, garments, shoes, and other goods for American, Canadian, and European families. Why is it so difficult to reform that abusive system? How can a breakthrough be achieved?
Those questions arise once more with the release of an extensive new report, "Made in China: Behind the Label," by the New York-based National Labor Committee. More than any previous report on China's factories, this one names the famous brand-name products made in those sweatshops, and links specific American companies to the harsh abuses workers must endure there.
She Had No Idea What Was Happening--and Still Doesn't
Take products bearing the Kathie Lee Gifford label and the multinational chain that sells them, Wal-Mart. Two years ago, after a National Labor Committee investigation exposed the exploitation of teen-age girls in a Honduran sweatshop making Kathie Lee pants, Ms. Gifford met with one of the exploited girls, and said: "I had no idea what was happening, but now that I know I will do everything to help you." Imbued with a sense of personal responsibility, Ms. Gifford became an active leader in setting up the Apparel Industry Partnership, a White House task force dedicated to eliminating sweatshop abuses not only in Honduras but elsewhere.
(For background information on the Partnership, see "Corporate Leadership Against Sweatshops.")
Now comes the revelation that handbags with the Kathie Lee label, sold by Wal-Mart, are made in three factories where conditions were among the worst among the 21 factories investigated for the National Labor Committee report. Like most other factories in China, these plants closely monitor every movement of their workers. But, through interviews away from the factory compound, a team of researchers from Hong Kong learned of conditions such as:
Kathie Lee Gifford, in countless media interviews, has shown herself as completely sincere about her commitment to eliminate such abuses, starting with the treatment of workers making her own Kathie Lee goods but not stopping there. Despite the best of intentions, however, despite the efforts of the Apparel Industry Partnership, the biggest names in American retailing are still taking advantages of workers, mostly women, held in a "position of being indentured servants," as the new report puts it.
- Pay as low as 12 cents an hour, with wages sometimes withheld for months.
- Forced overtime, adding up to 84-hour workweeks, sometimes without the legally required overtime premium.
- Complete secrecy about how wages and deductions are calculated.
- Absence of benefits, even legally required ones
- Housing in cramped quarters, 10 to 12 workers to a room, under 24-hour surveillance of guards.
- Stiff fines for breaking rules (e.g., loss of a day's pay for taking two evening hours to visit friends on a national holiday).
(The Committee's report is available on its Website at http://www.nlcnet.org.)
Exposing Those Involved by Name
Unlike the typical report on worker rights abuses in China, the National Labor Committee report does not hesitate to name names. Thanks to on-site research by two Hong Kong groups, the Asian Monitor Resource Center and the China Labor Bulletin, the report is able to cite 20 companies and brand names as complicit in sweatshop exploitation. Besides Wal-Mart and the Kathie Lee brand, these are Adidas, Ann Taylor, Bugle Boy, Dayton Hudson Corp., Disney, Ellen Tracy, Esprit Group, Federated Department Stores, J.C. Penney, Kmart, The Limited, Liz Claiborne, May Co., Nike, Ralph Lauren, Reebok International, and Sears, Roebuck & Co.
Says Charles Kernaghan, executive director of the National Labor Committee:
"Despite claims by American companies that they are monitoring factory conditions in China, these factories operate behind a veil of secrecy in which several factories work on the same order. It is likely that many U.S. companies are not even aware of where their garments are being produced, let alone what human rights conditions are."A Washington Post reporter found support for that last sentence from a surprising source. "Spokesmen for Gifford and Wal-Mart said neither was involved in choosing the factories in China that produce the handbags under subcontracts," William Branigin wrote (3/19/98).
Wal-Mart's Analysis Is True, But Can't Hold Up as an Excuse
Another revealing comment also came from Wal-Mart. In a statement, it said: "The problems outlined by the NLC [report] transcend Wal-Mart, Kathie-Lee, and the modern garment industry." True.
Indeed, the problems sketched in the report now grip a large and growing part of the global economy. The problems are multi-faceted, and require multi-faceted solutions. That, however, is no excuse for Wal-Mart, whose annual sales exceed the entire GDP of 161 of the world's 191 countries, to escape responsibility. Despite Ms. Gifford's leadership, Wal-Mart has refused to join the Apparel Industry Partnership.
What's To Be Done About It All?Two worker rights activists from Hong Kong--Apo Leong, executive director of the Asia Monitor Resource Center, and Sally Chun, research officer of the China Labor Bulletin--participated in the March 18 press conference where the "Made in China" report that they helped research was released. In a separate statement the two made specific recommendations addressing China's sweatshop problems.
Here are their main points:
At the press conference, Kernaghan announced a major new initiative requiring U.S. corporations to make public their operations in China, including the names and locations of factories of their contractors and subcontractors. Called "Corporate Disclosure--the People's Right to Know," it would drag sweatshops "out from behind closed doors and into the light of day," Kernaghan said. In the name of human rights organizations in Hong Kong, Apo Leong and Sally Chun gave their support to the upcoming campaign. (More details in a future Bulletin.)
- For foreign businesses in China: At the minimum, make sure that your contractors and subcontractors obey the labor laws of China. Don't expect much from codes of conduct, unless they are checked at the factory level by truly independent monitoring in which worker representatives participate.
- For the Chinese government: Amend or repeal all laws and regulations that contravene internationally recognized labor standards. Release all detained and imprisoned labor activists and unionists who are deprived of their freedom for exercising their rights as citizens of China.
- For the U.S. government: Press the Chinese government to release all detained and imprisoned labor activists and unionists. Give your support to worker participation in monitoring systems, such as the one set up or approved by the Apparel Industry Partnership.
Diary: Searching for Better Global Ways
As the millennium approaches, the good news is that the market economy has triumphed over the command economy, most spectacularly on the global level. The bad news is that the major players in the global economy don't have the faintest grasp of a social philosophy that should animate and inspire this market.That is the gist of something I heard several months ago in a talk given by Martin E. Marty, an editor of the Christian Century. Since he attributed that analysis to a University of Chicago economist, Marvin Zonis, I approached Dr. Marty after his talk to check the source and the accuracy of my notes. That wasn't possible on the spot, but only through correspondence. It turned out that Marty, a prolific writer, has written up Professor Zonis' analysis in more detailed form for an upcoming book. Marty shared the pertinent pages of his manuscript with me and with Professor Zonis, who read and approved them as accurately capturing his thought.
But how accurate is the analysis itself? The first part--that the market has won--reflects the conventional wisdom of Western economists and the Western media. True, the statist economy is indeed in retreat, but it has yet to surrender its dominant position in an enormous part of the earth, particularly China, North Korea, and Vietnam. Even those countries, however, are now caught up in a global economy driven by free market ideology.
Coming from an economist, the second part of the analysis--that the market economy needs the underpinning of a social philosophy--makes a significant admission. Of course free market theory is itself a social philosophy, which assumes that the free market, left to itself, is unrivaled as a mechanism for achieving the good life. But Professor Zonis seems to be looking for more.
Are there only two alternatives--the free market or the command economy? Polarizing choices is an old debater's trick. One leader who rejects both alternatives is Pope John Paul II. In Cuba, for example, he criticized not only Communism but also "the resurgence of a certain capitalist neo-liberalism that subordinates the human person to blind market forces and conditions the development of peoples on those forces." Over the years, the Pope has spelled out, in great detail, a humane social philosophy fit for a globalized world. But he hasn't gotten much of a hearing, not even among Catholics.
Missing: a Decent Global Infrastructure
Yet social philosophy, however sound, is lifeless without a social infrastructure that underpins it. The believers in the free market know that. They understand that unrestricted freedom in the markets produces chaos. So they have spent the past half century building up the World Trade Organization and a wide array of other international institutions (most unknown to the general public) to promote order and stability in the world marketplace.But to whose benefit? To the benefit of "a small number of countries growing exceedingly rich at the cost of the increasing impoverishment of a great number of other countries, [and] as a result, the wealthy grow ever wealthier, while the poor grow ever poorer." Thus Pope John Paul II in a homily on January 25, returning to a basic theme of a social philosophy he has promulgated over the past 20 years.A humane social philosophy is just an abstraction, however. To make a difference in the real world of today, it needs to be put into practice through a sound social infrastructure of global dimensions. What does that mean, specifically?
Answering that question in a global context is a major challenge of our time. Various initiatives to provide answers, some reported on this Website, are underway. But the search is not keeping pace with the growth of the international economy. No wonder. Those initiatives have far fewer human and financial resources, less public interest, and less urgency than (say) NASA's search for rocks on Mars.
Human Rights for Workers: Bulletin No. III-6, March 23, 1998
Robert A. Senser, editor
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