NLC’S KERNAGHAN AND KELLWOOD DUKE IT OUT
Byline: Rosemary Feitelberg / With contributions from Alison Maxwell, Washington
NEW YORK — Charles Kernaghan, executive director of the National Labor Committee, squared off Tuesday in another public battle with Kathie Lee Gifford.
Kernaghan staged a morning press conference at the Empire Hotel here to highlight the case of two factory workers from El Salvador who claim they were fired for trying to organize a union at Caribbean Apparel, where some of Gifford’s licensed apparel is made. The factory also produces Jaclyn Smith’s licensed apparel for Kmart.
But Kernaghan faced opposition from an unexpected source — Robert Adler, chairman of the Halmode division of the Kellwood Co., who introduced himself during a Q&A session. Kellwood holds the master license for the Kathie Lee Collection, which is sold exclusively at Wal-Mart.
Adler, who engaged in a contentious public debate with Kernaghan, pointed out that Kellwood executives had agreed last week to meet with the NLC to discuss the allegations and that the press conference was being held before Kellwood had such an opportunity. He also defended Gifford, whom he described as the “Joan of Arc” of the antisweatshop movement. Despite taking what Adler called “a lot of abuse” from “comedians,” Gifford has helped draw attention to the cause.
“What would Joan of Arc think of seeing guards in the factory pounding on bathroom doors with their sticks?” Kernaghan asked in response.
At Caribbean Apparel, workers earn 60 cents an hour and work six-day weeks, Kernaghan charged. He also alleged that prior to being hired, female workers must pay for mandatory pregnancy tests, and are often forced to work overtime. He said they receive no sick pay and their bathroom visits are restricted and monitored.
The NLC and United Students Against Sweatshops said they found these conditions after visiting the facility this summer.
Two factory workers, Lorena del Carmen Hernandez and Blanca Ruth Palacios, and Salvadoran union organizer Jiovanni Fuentes talked about death threats and intimidation tactics.
In a statement issued by Gifford late Tuesday afternoon, she said the garments displayed in a video aired during the press conference were not manufactured by Caribbean Apparel. In addition, Caribbean Apparel said the factory in the footage was not its facility, she added.
She also claimed the clip of armed guards and wire fences was actually the free trade zone and not the factory. Gifford said she will report the results of an investigation into the NLC’s allegations and the plans for action as soon as it is completed.
After the press conference, Adler said Kathie Lee apparel is not currently being produced at Caribbean Apparel, but he didn’t know why production stopped.
Fuentes claimed he received a death threat from the factory’s attorney earlier this month at the El Salvador Ministry of Labor. Fuentes said the attorney told him, “Look, I’m already old. This is the advice of a friend. Get out of your work. There is a mafia running in this country. They will kill anyone for 100 colones.”
After returning to the U.S. and learning that Hernandez and Palacios were fired, the NLC brought them here, Kernaghan said.
Gifford is a member of the Fair Labor Association, an offshoot of the Apparel Industry Partnership, a White House task force set up in 1996 to combat sweatshop conditions internationally and develop a program of global plant monitoring. Groups like the USAS and NLC have been actively criticizing the FLA for what they charge is a “watered down” code of conduct, allowing firms to comply minimally with fair labor standards.
After a 1996 meeting with a worker from Honduras, Gifford signed an agreement stating that factories where her clothing was made would be open to inspection by independent organizations. She also called for a living wage for the workers sewing the clothing. Gifford has not fulfilled those claims, according to the NLC.
“Kathie Lee is an influential and powerful person who would have an enormous impact,” Kernaghan said. “Hopefully, we can persuade her to stop Wal-Mart and Kellwood from hiding the names and addresses of factories.”
But Adler said Gifford is not to be blamed.
“You can’t blame her. We take full responsibility for this,” he said after the press conference. “She has nothing to do with where these goods are placed [for production].”
Gifford also spends $500,000 annually out of her own pocket to hire independent auditors who monitor her factories, Adler said.
During their exchange at the press conference, Kernaghan pressed Adler to release the names and addresses of factories, and audits conducted by independent auditors. Adler said he would do so, but later said he would have to clear that request with other Kellwood officials.
Kellwood also sent about 30 investigators to inquire about the NLC’s charges and was told last week that the allegations of mandated pregnancy tests were probably related to blood tests conducted to prevent the spread of communicable diseases, Adler added.
Kellwood’s investigators visit factories quarterly ,and they generally spend about 30 to 45 minutes speaking with 10 to 15 percent of the workforce. The company is willing to find a third-party auditor other than PriceWaterhouseCoopers, STR or Cal Compliance, which Kernaghan repeatedly criticized for not speaking with factory workers at offsite “safe areas,” where workers can speak openly.
NLC officials plan to meet with Kellwood within the next week to discuss the allegations.