By  on November 14, 2006

WASHINGTON — Wal-Mart Stores, Gap Inc., Phillips-Van Heusen Corp. and four other major U.S. companies want Philippines President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo to address allegations that police attacked striking garment workers in the Cavite Export Processing Zone.

"We urge your government to take proactive measures for ensuring the physical safety and for protecting the rights of workers and labor rights promoters," the companies said in a letter, which also was signed by Polo Ralph Lauren Corp., Jones Apparel Group, American Eagle Outfitters Inc. and Liz Claiborne Inc.

The letter, which was coordinated by the Toronto-based Maquila Solidarity Network, a labor and women's rights advocacy organization, also asked Macapagal-Arroyo to support independent investigations into the killings this year of two prominent labor advocates, Bishop Alberto Ramento and former union president Gerardo Cristobal.

Workers at the Chong Won Fashion factory, which produces apparel for One Step Up, a Wal-Mart supplier, went on strike Sept. 25 after management refused to negotiate with the union, said the Maquila Solidarity Network, drawing on information provided by the Workers' Assistance Centre in the Philippines.

Police and private security guards on two occasions attacked and injured a total of 32 strikers while escorting replacement workers into the factory, the Maquila Solidarity Network said. A total of 116 strikers received termination notices.

"Individuals working in factories that produce our goods must have the right to associate freely, join organizations of their choice and bargain collectively without unlawful interference," the letter said. "Workers should have the opportunity to work and live in an environment free from the threat of physical violence or harm."

Wal-Mart helped coordinate two meetings this month between the Chong Won management and workers, though factory management has not negotiated with the union, the Maquila Solidarity Network said.

"There are factories in this zone that all of us as brands are using, and, while we're doing our part to make sure that factories that we are using are following appropriate practices, we thought it was also very appropriate to ask the government to do its part," said a Wal-Mart spokeswoman, who said she did not have many specifics on the case.

"We give Wal-Mart credit for having signed onto this letter, but we don't think they've put sufficient pressure on their supplier or the factory owner,'' said Bob Jeffcott, policy analyst for the Maquila Solidarity Network. "Preferably, we don't want a situation where Wal-Mart just walks away. They need to bring more pressure…and ultimately that pressure does have to be a statement that your future orders do depend upon whether you're going to abide by the law."The case is an interesting one for Wal-Mart, which has long resisted efforts to unionize its U.S. operation.

"It's always been our associates' choice as to whether they want to be involved and have third-party representation, and they've overwhelmingly chosen not to," said the Wal-Mart spokesman. "I don't see any contradiction."

"One Step Up is very concerned about the situation on the ground in the Philippines," said Harry Adjmi, president of the New York-based company. "We had people from our company in the Philippines last week trying to help mediate and resolve this."

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