Byline: Joyce Barrett--with contributions from Bud Cohen, San Francisco

WASHINGTON--Organizers of a national campaign protesting working conditions at Caribbean apparel plants are expected to carry their complaints to The Gap Inc. headquarters in San Francisco today.
Coordinated by the National Labor Committee, the campaign is targeting retailers who source at certain plants in the Caribbean and Central America.
It has already visited Dayton Hudson Corp. headquarters in Minneapolis, and a visit to J.C. Penney is planned.
In preparation for the meeting, The Gap issued a press release saying it is conducting an investigation of working conditions at Mandarin International, a Taiwanese-owned maquiladora plant operating in the San Marcos Free Trade Zone in El Salvador that is at the center of the NLC's campaign.
Gap senior vice president for international sourcing and logistics Stan Raggio is expected to meet with National Labor Committee executive director Charles Kernaghan this afternoon.
The Gap chief executive officer and chairman Donald G. Fisher also has responded in a letter to the editor published in Tuesday's San Francisco Chronicle. His letter referred to a piece by columnist Bob Herbert telling about "next to nothing" wages and the "suffering' of maquiladora workers in El Salvador and elsewhere in Central America, with U.S. apparel companies "reaping the benefits." The column was published last week in the Chronicle, the New York Times and other papers.
Rebutting the charges, Fisher said his company takes "great pride in operating in an ethical and socially responsible manner, and we are careful to choose business partners who share our values."
The Gap instituted sourcing guidelines for its contractors several years ago, addressing human rights and employment practices, Fisher said.
"When we find that one of our vendors has breached these standards, we take action to correct them or terminate our relationship," he said. Since the probe commenced in March, The Gap has not placed any new orders with Mandarin, according to a Gap statement.
Fisher further noted: "The Gap's investigations thus far have failed to uncover violations of our sourcing guidelines. However, because the continuing allegations are so disturbing--and because they conflict so strongly with our own findings--we remain concerned about the Mandarin facility. "We will not place any further orders with the factory until our investigations are complete and we are satisfied that the facility is abiding by our 'Sourcing Principles and Guidelines,"' Fisher wrote.
Raggio, in a telephone interview, said The Gap has contacted the El Salvadoran embassy in Washington, the U.S. embassy in El Salvador, and the State Department in an effort to determine the conditions at the Mandarin plant and the validity of the union's charges.
He said the Mandarin plant sewed turtlenecks for The Gap, and noted a "small" amount of the Gap's apparel is sourced from El Salvador.
"I'd like to think people know we are serious about these things and aren't just paying lip service to these complaints," Raggio said.
The Herbert column also attracted a flurry of other letters to the editor. Three of them were published in the New York Times on Tuesday. One was from Raymond Goldberg, president of New Age Intimates, Long Island City, a company making bras in Latin America. "Until Mr. Herbert can find a better income source for these people, he should not criticize those who provide these jobs," Goldberg wrote.
Another letter was from Stephen Coats, executive director, U.S.-Guatemala Labor Education Project, Chicago, pointing to the violence in anti-union activities in Central America. The third, from Kelly Kammerer, counselor to the Agency for International Development, Washington, told about the efforts being taken by the Clinton administration to fight conditions described by Herbert.
The NLC, a coalition of 25 labor unions, began its campaign early in the summer and has mustered media attention wherever it goes. Two workers from Caribbean plants have carried their stories of long hours and workplace abuse to various spots around the country, including Capitol Hill. A third worker started out on the campaign but had to return to her home in El Salvador because of a family crisis, a spokeswoman at the NLC in New York said.
The campaign is aimed at pressuring U.S. corporations into forcing improvements in working conditions at the plants. In a July 25 letter from Kernaghan to Fisher, Kernaghan said the unions did not want The Gap to sever its relationship with Mandarin "nor to pull work out of El Salvador. Rather, we want to discuss with you ways The Gap can help bring the Mandarin plant into compliance with The Gap's code of conduct as well as with Salvadoran and U.S. law."
The two women continuing with the tour--Judith Viera, an 18-year-old former employee at Mandarin, and Claudia Molina, a 17-year-old former employee at Orion Apparel, a Korean-owned maquiladora factory in Choloma, Honduras--are expected to tell their stories at a noontime rally in San Francisco today.
Molina, who said she has sewn shirts for The Gap often working more than 75 hours a week for 56 cents an hour, has described how Mandarin officials tried to break the union by mass firings and threats and violence. She has described how women workers are sexually harassed by supervisors, that there is no clean water to drink at the plant, and that workers are allowed to go to the restroom only twice a day.
El Salvadoran ambassador Ana Christina Sol also has gotten involved in the dispute. In a July 31 letter to the New York Times obtained by WWD, Sol defended labor standards in her country and said, "Isolated cases are being used to inaccurately portray El Salvador as a country where workers rights are violated systematically ....
"Approximately 160 apparel manufacturing plants operate in El Salvador. The total alleged denounced violations involve less than 1 percent of the total number of plants in the country," she said.
Sol went on to say that the Commission to Prevent Labor Conflict in the Apparel Industry has resolved the labor disputes at the Mandarin plant and that all employees who "resigned" as a result of the anti-union campaign have received severance pay. A transcript of a July 26 press conference held in El Salvador by the commission also noted that pregnant workers that had been dismissed were rehired or were offered salaries until their expected delivery dates.
The ambassador said the national campaign was timed to coincide with an upcoming vote in Congress on broadening trade privileges to Caribbean countries and was aimed at "impeding" the passage of the legislation. That bill, which would give Caribbean countries benefits equivalent to those given Mexico by the North American Free Trade Agreement, is expected to take place in September.
Robert Hall, vice president and government affairs counsel for the National Retail Federation, which advocates the Caribbean parity, agreed and said the union campaign has raised some questions about the measure on Capitol Hill.
Hall said advocates of the parity plan feared it would not be brought for a vote before Congress adjourns for the year if the questions raised by the campaign are not resolved.
"We can clear the record," he said, however. "Many of the allegations have no corroborating evidence."

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