Byline: Joanna Ramey

WASHINGTON — Curators of an exhibit on garment sweatshops being planned for the Smithsonian Institution knew their subject was controversial, and this week they got further proof.
Some of the fashion industry’s top organizations — the National Retail Federation, the American Apparel Manufacturers Association, the California Fashion Association and San Francisco Fashion Industries — have turned down requests to participate.
Officials at the trade groups representing many of the nation’s leading department stores and apparel makers say the show, “Between a Rock and a Hard Place: A Dialog on American Sweatshops, 1820-Present,” will unfairly characterize the cause and extent to which sweatshops exist.
“We did not feel comfortable moving forward with an exhibit we view would ultimately be very biased against the retail industry,” said Steve Pfister, vice president, legislative and political affairs with NRF, which gave the Smithsonian the bad news Wednesday.
How apparel makers and retailers view their industries’ practices is slated to be included in the last of the exhibit’s five sections. The preceding sections chronicle the existence of sweatshops as the garment industry evolved from made-to-order tailored clothing to mass production, starting in 1820.
But it’s the centerpiece of the sweatshop story — a section devoted to the discovery in 1995 of an El Monte, Calif., contractor who had a prison-like sewing shop employing illegal Thai immigrants — that’s a particular turn-off to the fashion industry. The El Monte case became the launching pad for former Labor Secretary Robert Reich’s campaign tying the presence of sweatshops to demands by apparel makers and retailers for low-cost garments.
“The exhibit is focusing on the isolated incident of El Monte, which is an example of an immigrant population preying on itself, not an issue of how the garment industry behaves,” said a spokeswoman for the AAMA, which decided Monday to turn down an invitation to help produce a video for the exhibit highlighting good apparel manufacturing practices.
“We don’t want people to come away from an exhibit associating brand-name apparel manufacturing with El Monte,” the spokeswoman said. “It’s completely negative. There is no upside to participating.”
Ilse Metchek, president of the California Fashion Association, said the group plans to send a letter to state lawmakers on Capitol Hill objecting to government money being spent on the exhibit, still slated to open April 15 at the Smithsonian’s Museum of American History. The Los Angeles-based CFA was asked to participate in the exhibit, but a role had not yet been proposed.
“We’d give them our full 100 percent support if they want to talk about the contributions the American fashion industry has had on the world and the opportunities it has given to immigrants and the undereducated,” she said. “Now, they are a focusing on some of the aberrations of the industry.”
Randall Harris, executive director of San Francisco Fashion Industries, in a letter to the CFA about the exhibit, also decries the Smithsonian’s emphasis on El Monte. In addition, he protests plans for the exhibit to travel to Los Angeles and San Francisco.
Calling the sweatshop in El Monte “despicable,” Harris said the event has turned into a “political tool.”
“It has taken on a life of its own, a rallying cry for organized labor and every other special interest group seeking a public venue for their advocacy agenda…while leaving our apparel industry in a mud slide of bad public opinion and endless media attacks,” Harris wrote. “The Smithsonian exhibit will do nothing for the industry in furthering our goals of industry reform or those of the state and federal governments for that matter.”
Exhibit co-curator Peter Liebhold, a technology historian at the Museum of American History, expected some industry resistance. As reported, museum officials, going into the project, sized up the contentious nature of their subject but vowed not to have another “Enola Gay” on their hands, referring to the Smithsonian’s exhibit three years ago of the B-29 that dropped the atom bomb on Hiroshima. Critics said that exhibit paid too much attention to Japanese suffering and not enough to Japan’s World War II atrocities.
Liebhold said museum officials are striving to be balanced in telling the sweatshop story and rebuffs industry arguments the exhibit favors the apparel union UNITE, which has donated money toward the show’s $285,000 budget.
Liebhold would not specify the amount of UNITE’s donation, nor the portion of a $100,000 Ford Foundation grant the Labor Department has donated to underwrite the project. The agency got the Excellence in Government grant two years ago for its anti-sweatshop efforts.
The sweatshop exhibit still lacks $150,000 in funding.
“It is not an exhibit about the apparel industry. It’s an exhibit about American work, not organized labor,” said Liebhold, who’s talking with a few manufacturers and one national retailer about participating in the exhibit and who would fill the void created by the associations.
“What I’m looking for are members of the manufacturing and retailing communities who are interested in coming forward and talking about what they are doing well,” he said. “I think most people would agree sweatshops are not a monolithic problem, that there are some abusers and there are some really good operations.”
Reacting to the associations’ lack of cooperation, Rep. George Miller (D., Calif.) on Thursday asked fellow lawmakers to write the Smithsonian Institution’s chief, I. Michael Heyman, to support the sweatshop exhibit. Miller is a vocal supporter of global garment contractor monitoring efforts led by organized labor and human rights groups.
“The fact is sweatshops have tarred this nation’s history and threaten our future,” Miller wrote in a letter to his colleagues. “The Smithsonian is working to ensure that the exhibit is balanced. Some in the apparel industry, however, are working to ensure that the exhibit, whether balanced or not, never sees the light of day.”

load comments
blog comments powered by Disqus