Sixteen years ago the American public and Kathie Lee Gifford were shocked when it was revealed that the Walmart clothing line that carried Gifford’s name was manufactured—unbeknownst to her—under sweatshop conditions by Honduran children working 20 hours a day. She burst into tears when shown undercover footage of the factories, and consumer support for new rules and labor standards for imported clothing grew.
But now, writes Jake Blumgart in a Salon series of articles on workers and workplace issues brought to you by the AFL-CIO, “nothing much has changed.“
In an interview with Charles Kernaghan, director of the Institute for Global Labour and Human Rights, Blumgart says that even as he lists the many successes the global anti-sweat movement has achieved since the Gifford cry, Kernaghan “sounds defeated.”
Kernaghan’s gloomy mood stems from the report he is writing now on a recent trip to Northern Bengal, where the institute secretly met with workers from the Rosita and Megatex factories to follow up on a previous exposé. The two factories produce expensive sweaters for an array of European apparel companies, companies which assure their customers that the workers are guaranteed the core rights established by the International Labor Organization (ILO), including freedom of association and the elimination of child labor.
Kernaghan said the apparel factories were worst they’d even seen.
There was child labor, people were being beaten, cheated of their wages—and wages were very, very low. Male supervisors would constantly press young women to have sex with them.
The free trade zone where the factories are located is run by former military operatives. Police stations are located right outside the factory, and police cars stud the surrounding blocks, but not for the protection of the employees. Kernaghan said when workers demonstrated for their rights, hundreds were beaten by the police and then fired. The committee presidents at the time were beaten, tortured, fired and banned from coming anywhere near the factory.
(In November, a fire at Tazreen Fashion factory in Bangladesh killed at least 112 workers and seven young women, at least two of them teenagers died in a January fire the Smart Export Garments Bangladesh factory fire.)
Blumgart also explores the difficulty American consumers have—94% of whom told a National Consumers League poll that the way workers who make their products are treated is very important to them—finding sweatshop free and ethically produced clothing.
He examines the facts behind the claims of some major manufacturers such as Nike and retailers such as Walmart that they are adhering to international labor standards. Blumgart also highlights the success the student-led anti-sweatshop movement has had in bringing standards to school-logo apparel manufacturing.