Byline: Joanna Ramey

WASHINGTON--The Gap is being denounced by a group of union and human rights activists for withdrawing its business from an El Salvador factory, a move the retailer made this month in the wake of ongoing reports of worker abuses there.
The National Labor Committee, which first brought allegations of abuse at the Mandarin International factory to Gap's attention last summer, now is accusing the San Francisco-based chain of turning its back on the factory workers that sewed Gap clothes for three years.
"It's been a surprise to us and a disappointment to us," said the committee's executive director, Charles Kernaghan, who will lead a demonstration Friday in front of the Gap store in New York's Herald Square to protest the chain's move.
"They are harming the women in the factory. The lesson that's left behind is, if you dare raise your voice in protest, if you get involved in this human rights stuff, you're toast. The Gap is a big and powerful company. They could help this situation in two seconds."
In a Nov. 27 letter to Stanley Raggio, Gap senior vice president for sourcing and logistics, factory workers asked the retailer to reconsider its position and meet with factory management. "We consider that in the name of justice, you owe us such a meeting," the letter says. "If Gap leaves El will only do us great harm. If you are concerned about us, it would be much better to make a serious proposal to Mandarin that would guarantee our rights and allow us to return to our jobs."
A Nov. 16 letter sent by Raggio to the workers explained Gap's reasons for pulling out of the country, noting that despite three investigations. serious allegations of human rights and employment abuses at the factory persisted. The letter was supplied to WWD by Kernaghan's group, but the contents were confirmed by a Gap spokesman.
"Conflicting reports and discomfort they are creating for all concerned" led officials to stop doing business with Mandarin, Raggio wrote.
"The Gap feels it has an obligation not to contribute to or foster this situation any further," Raggio continued. "Since we neither own nor control Mandarin, the only way it seems possible to do that is to cease ordering merchandise. It was our hope that Gap orders would result in humane and productive employment in El Salvador."
Mandarin is a Taiwanese-owned factory operating in the San Marcos free trade zone.
The Gap isn't the only retailer facing the issue of worker conditions at apparel contractors, domestic and abroad. Stores nationally are being vigorously lobbied by human rights, labor and socially responsible investor groups to have independent auditors keep tabs on working conditions at factories. Some of the larger chains have bristled at the notion of having to undertake a wholesale auditing program of factories they don't own or with which they have minimal contact, saying it would be a logistics nightmare.
While Gap officials declined comment on the El Salvador case, a spokesman said the chain is cognizant of the need to monitor its factories.
"It's our responsibility to control our own monitoring," the spokesman said. "Our contractor monitoring program is an evolutionary process. We constantly review and look to improve our contractor compliance."
The spokesman also made available a copy of a letter prepared by Raggio to answer queries about the El Salvador situation, which lists three terms that must be met before The Gap would consider returning to Mandarin: The Salvadoran government must demonstrate an ability to effectively investigate and resolve labor disputes fairly and promptly; the Mandarin factory must exceed The Gap's "Sourcing Principles and Guidelines," and The Gap must have confidence its "orders will result in humane and productive employment."
Kernaghan said the controversies and discrepancies encircling the Mandarin factory would be easily ironed out if an independent monitoring program were employed.
"This case proves that companies like the Gap can't monitor themselves," he said. "It's so clear."--Fairchild News Service

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