KERNAGHAN, GIFFORD SPAR OVER KATHIE LEE
Byline: Joanna Ramey
WASHINGTON — High drama came to Capitol Hill Wednesday as the latest sweatshop scandal directed at Kathie Lee Gifford’s line of apparel made for Wal-Mart took its show on the road.
The stage was a news conference in a House office building where anti-sweatshop crusader Charles Kernaghan recast a press event held Tuesday in New York. The allegations of worker mistreatment in El Salvador at a Kellwood Co. contractor producing Kathie Lee Casuals were repeated. What followed over the next two hours was a mix of pillorying and pathos, with a bit of political posturing tossed in.
Kathie Lee’s husband, Frank Gifford, became visibly angered as he heard Kernaghan, executive director of the National Labor Committee, charge that her promises to improve factory conditions have not held up. Kathie Lee herself was not present.
At one point, a campus anti-sweatshop organizer openly sobbed at the podium over the plight of Salvadoran garment workers and what he described as indifference to their problem from Kathie Lee and others. An exasperated Robert Adler, a Kellwood executive in charge of the Kathie Lee license who also appeared at Tuesday’s forum, loudly defended his company’s monitoring policies, but acknowledged these inspections have their limits. He spoke both from the podium and the audience and as he did on Tuesday, described Kathie Lee as the “Joan of Arc” of the anti-sweatshop movement.
When asked if he wanted to speak, Frank Gifford went to the podium and said Kathie Lee has “suffered” from Kernaghan’s accusations and has been “tortured” as she tries “to explain to a nine-year-old son why people are saying these things about her.”
“She’s out there in the forefront” on the sweatshop issue, Gifford said. “I resent, sir, what you have done to my wife. You have assassinated her character.”
Kernaghan angrily shot back: “This is not a personal issue about your wife. There are hundreds of thousands of workers in these factories working 16-hour days. Someone needs to speak for these workers.”
Rep. Tom Lantos (D., Calif.), co-founder of the congressional Human Rights Caucus, urged calm in discussing the allegations and criticized Kernaghan’s tactics. “It is extremely critical this issue be approached by us+with a degree of fairness,” said Lantos.
Lantos and Rep. Tom Moran (D., Va.), who also spoke, said they plan to investigate Kernaghan’s allegations, which were supported by three of the fired workers who attended. Lantos said he planned to call Wal-Mart’s chief executive officer, David Glass. Moran said he’ll talk to colleagues and see if a bipartisan group could be formed to explore the issue of contractor conditions in El Salvador.
Asked if lawmakers could resolve the vexing issue of global contractor working conditions — something a presidential panel, industry and human rights groups have tackled with mixed results — Moran acknowledged the difficulty of the task.
“It’s a damn good question,” said Moran, whose suburban Washington, D.C. district has a heavy Salvadoran immigrant population. “But every extra bit of focus provides some evolution in attitude and conditions.”
This isn’t the first time Kernaghan has taken Kathie Lee to task, having three years ago lodged his first allegations against her, as well as Wal-Mart and Kellwood. A pact for monitoring was reached then, but Kernaghan said Wednesday that the monitoring instituted by all three parties hasn’t gone far enough to insure workers rights are protected. Kernaghan’s latest focus is a large Korean-owned Salvadoran contractor, Caribbean Apparel. The contractor is accused of firing six workers who tried to organize a union. One worker allegedly has faced death threats. Overall working conditions and wages are also at issue.
Wednesday’s volley of accusations and recriminations didn’t seem to settle any of Kernaghan’s goals, which include getting the workers reinstated, wages increased and permission for Jesuit priests or other similar local officials to inspect the factories. He maintained monitors hired by companies don’t hear the real story from workers interviewed since they are perceived as “the bosses.”
However, the dustup did display the bad feelings between the combatants.
Adler, chairman of Kellwood’s Halmode division, said he was nonplussed over what he characterized as Kernaghan’s unwillingness to discuss problems.
“These are some of the most serious allegations I have ever heard,” shouted Adler. “I’ve offered to meet with you+.We are trying our best. We’re the good guys. We’re the white hats.”
Kernaghan demanded Kellwood order Caribbean Apparel to reinstate the fired workers and to increase the 60-cents-an-hour wage, the local industry standard, though workers say it isn’t enough to survive on.
“The women have told us $1.20 an hour would be enough to climb out of poverty. Kellwood can afford it,” Kernaghan said. Adler replied he couldn’t order another business to reinstate workers. Regarding the wages, Adler said he’d look into it, although noting the issue was one of economics and the wages were already above the local minimum.
Since Kernaghan came forth with these latest allegations last week, Adler said monitors have been dispatched to Caribbean Apparel, but he did not say what the monitors found.
In a statement issued after the news conference, Kellwood said it spends $1 million a year on outside monitoring.