By  on August 6, 2007

WASHINGTON — Wal-Mart Stores Inc., joined by seven prominent fashion firms, called on President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo of the Philippines to investigate alleged abuses of striking workers at C. Woo Trading, an apparel factory in the Cavite Export Processing Zone that used to produce for the discount giant.

In June, a group of strikers outside the factory, formerly known as Chong Won Fashion Inc., were allegedly attacked by nine men armed with crowbars and knives who claimed they were paid to break the strike. A few hours later, a group of 20 men wearing ski masks threatened the strikers with M-16 rifles.

"We are all concerned that these alleged incidents appear to be part of a larger pattern of harassment and violence against workers, labor leaders and human rights promoters that could discourage companies from doing business with your country," said the companies in a letter to the president set to be delivered today.

Also signing on were executives from American Eagle Outfitters Inc., Gap Inc., Jones Apparel Group, Liz Claiborne Inc., Phillips-Van Heusen Corp., Polo Ralph Lauren Corp. and VF Corp. The Maquila Solidarity Network in Toronto coordinated the effort.

In November, the group, excluding VF, sent a letter to Macapagal-Arroyo to express their concern over attacks on strikers and the slayings of labor rights leaders.

"There's an assumption by the government that foreign investors want a union-free work environment and that anything that's necessary to keep it free of unions is acceptable," said Bob Jeffcott, policy analyst for the Maquila Solidarity Network. "Companies have a responsibility to convey to the governments that they would like to see the rule of law applied in a consistent manner. These kinds of letters raise the bar on corporate social responsibility."

The brands on the letter should hold some sway in the country, which is the 12th-largest apparel importer to the U.S. with shipments of 541.9 million square meter equivalent, valued at $1.9 billion, during the year ended May 30.

Jeffcott said the workers were "extremely traumatized" after the last incident and have not returned to the picket line.

"To me, this looks like retaliation and revenge rather than it being an attempt to protect any workers going to work," he said.Workers at the factory, which had been producing apparel for Wal-Mart supplier One Step Up, went on strike in September after management reportedly refused to negotiate with the union.

Wal-Mart organized meetings between workers and management, and initially kept using the factory, but eventually pulled its business when the factory owner did not meet the store's conditions.

"Wal-Mart has disapproved Chong Won Fashion as a factory and it will not be eligible to produce merchandise for One Step Up or any other supplier of products sold at Wal-Mart," a spokesman for the retailer wrote in an e-mail. "Having worked proactively for the past year to engage all parties, resolve issues and ensure compliance with Wal-Mart's Ethical Standards program, this is not the outcome we desired."

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