Byline: Joyce Barrett
WASHINGTON — The rhetoric is heating up as organized labor attempts to pressure retailers for better enforcement of labor standards in apparel plants in the Caribbean and Central America.
“If we don’t get an honest response, we’ll pick a company and boycott,” said Charles Kernaghan, chairman of the National Labor Committee, a coalition made up primarily of labor unions, which last week staged a rally in front of the Minneapolis headquarters of Dayton Hudson Corp.
“Meanwhile, we plan to reach as many consumers as we can to tell them what is happening in these plants,” Kernaghan said.
In conjunction with the Minneapolis rally, the NLC had sought — but did not get — a meeting with DH executives to push its cause. As reported, DH issued a statement that it was “erroneously” included in the NLC’s list of firms doing business with plants cited in the NLC material.
Other companies targeted by the NLC in this drive are Eddie Bauer, The Gap, J.C. Penney Co., Kmart and Fruit of the Loom. The organization wants them to hire independent inspectors to insure working standards are maintained in the plants supplying goods.
Kernaghan this month is escorting across the country three teenage women who have worked in apparel plants in Honduras and El Salvador and who are speaking about the harsh conditions in those plants.They are addressing various religious, educational and labor groups. According to material from the NLC, they are:
Judith Yanira Viera, 18, who was a worker at a Taiwanese-owned maquiladora in the San Marcos free-trade zone in El Salvador before being fired for union activities. She has reported that women work 12- and 14-hour days, seven days a week, sewing T-shirts.
Claudia Leticia Molina, 17, who has worked at a Korean-owned maquiladora in Choloma, Honduras, sewing apparel for various labels. She talks about living in a one-room shack with her family — two beds for five people — beside a polluted stream.
Silvia Elizabeth Garcia Vasquez, 17, who has worked in a Korean-owned plant, also in the San Marcos free-trade zone in El Salvador, and reported she worked 12-hour shifts sewing golf shirts.
The three women spoke to a national meeting in Minneapolis of the National Educational Association on Wednesday, and the teachers’ union adopted a resolution that said it would “investigate the use of child labor by U.S. corporations or their suppliers…that…deny their employees the right to an education.” The resolution continued: “The NEA will work…to support and publicize the campaign for the right to an education being organized by the National Labor Committee.”
National retail organizations, however, insist that retailers enforce policies setting out labor standards for their offshore contractors.
“U.S. companies are very serious about these codes,” said Robin Lanier, vice president of international trade for the International Mass Retail Association. “Now, they aren’t there 24 hours a day, but they take this very seriously.”
Lanier said she thought the National Labor Committee would not stop until it got labor standards offshore equivalent to those in the U.S., but she added, “That’s just not realistic.”
The NLC campaign is timed to draw attention to the bill pending in Congress to give broadened trade benefits to the Caribbean. The aim is to get labor standards included as part of the legislation.
Retailers and apparel makers have been pressing their case for the measure, which would give the Caribbean trade benefits equal to those Mexico has under the North American Free Trade Agreement. The bill is seen as vital to maintain the competitiveness of the Caribbean, where sourcing links have been long established.
Iowa retailers, organized by Younkers Inc. and the Association of Iowa Merchants, lunched Friday in Des Moines with Sen. Charles Grassley (R., Iowa), chairman of the Senate Trade Subcommittee, to advocate passage of the Caribbean parity bill.
The American Apparel Manufacturers Association also is getting into the act. Last week AAMA government relations director Michael Gale traveled to apparel plants in Honduras, Dominican Republic and Costa Rica with 10 Capitol Hill staffers on what is billed as an “educational” trip to build support for the Caribbean bill.