ANTI-SWEATSHOP EFFORT TAKING TO THE AIRWAVES
Byline: Joanna Ramey
WASHINGTON — Aiming again to turn up the heat on retailers, the Labor Department is putting a Madison Avenue spin on its anti-sweatshop crusade.
The agency will launch on Monday a public service announcement campaign seeking to motivate consumers to prod retailers about whether garments are made in sewing shops monitored for labor violations.
The move drew cries of foul play from retail and apparel interests.
The print and radio campaign release coincides with the 85th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York, in which 146 garment workers perished. The ads, to be sent to 10,000 publications, evoke that tragedy and the discovery last August of the now infamous sweatshop in El Monte, Calif., in which 72 illegal Thai immigrants were virtually enslaved to sew brand-name apparel for 70 cents an hour. Audio tape versions will be sent to 100 radio stations.
“She just made you the shirt off her back,” reads the print ad, showing one of the El Monte workers crouching down with her elbows on her knees and with a dazed look.
“Consumers, like you, can make a difference,” the ad goes on. “You can ask questions about where and how garments are made when you shop. You can ask if your retailer monitors garment manufactures in order to avoid buying from sweatshops. And, you can choose not to buy sweatshop products.”
News of the advertisements drew immediate fire from retailers and apparel manufacturers.
“‘Cheap shot’ comes to mind,” said Larry Martin, president of the American Apparel Manufacturers Association, arguing the ad — while primarily targeted at retailers — unfairly evokes an image of the entire domestic apparel industry treating its 900,000 workers like slaves.
“Reputable companies are not involved in this. It’s the Labor Department and INS that aren’t doing their job. Where you have sweatshops, you usually have illegal immigrants.”
“They’ve made no new arguments. This is a misleading campaign. They are sighting one isolated, deplorable case from six months ago and an 85-year-old accident,” said Steve Pfister, vice president of legislative and political affairs, National Retail Federation, who pins responsibility for monitoring the nation’s 22,000 sewing shops on the apparel makers who contract for the work and government enforcers. “It’s not retailers who are in violation.”
The ads — which Labor officials will urge media to run free of charge — follow the December release of the Trendsetter List, a tally of 32 stores and manufacturers deemed by the agency to have strong anti-sweatshop policies. The ads ask consumers to write the agency for a list of “No Sweat retailers and manufacturers who have agreed to help make sweatshops go out of fashion.”
Labor officials had hoped to create competition among stores to be included on the list. That never materialized since one of the list’s requirements is for stores to insist the U.S.-made apparel they sell be produced in sewing shops monitored for wage, child labor and other workplace violations. Retailers have said that while they will withdraw business from vendors whose contractors are found in violation of Labor laws, they can’t otherwise keep tabs on sewing shops given the myriad of apparel they sell.
Many of the large retailers have generally viewed the Trendsetter List as a flop, much to the consternation of Labor Secretary Robert Reich, who has made eradicating sweatshops one of his top priorities. With Congress shrinking his agency’s budget, Reich sees retailer participation in monitoring sewing shops as essential to this effort.
Reich also has repeatedly noted how the image-conscious fashion industry is fearfully shy of bad publicity, a vein the public service announcement campaign is clearly intended to tap.
“We have really tried to work with retailers and only a few have really tried to meet us half way,” said Maria Echaveste, administrator for Labor’s Wage and Hour Division. “It’s a situation where there is more that retailers could do, and maybe if they feel the consumer pressure they will do it. It’s obvious government can’t solve this problem itself.”
How much attention the public service announcements will get remains to be seen. The effort will cost under $10,000, a Labor spokesman said. The agency will announce on Monday publications that have already agreed to run the ads.
Pfister forecast the ad’s entreaties for consumers to query retailers about the source of apparel won’t create a legion of concerned shoppers. “They should take the money for this public service announcement and put it into their enforcement staff,” he said.
A spokeswoman for the retail giant Federated Department Stores said the chain welcomes consumer inquiries regarding apparel the company directly orders from sewing shops, which the retailer monitors. However, she added, “we believe the problem with compliance among garment manufacturers might be better addressed were the Department of Labor to devote more of its efforts to enforcement of existing laws and less to waging expensive and questionable advertising campaigns.
According to an official with one of Labor’s Trendsetters, Carson Pirie Scott, the ads are a positive step because they should generate increased interest among consumers about the sweatshop issue, although it might be difficult for them to discern what apparel is domestically produced and what is imported.
“Certainly the ad will spark an awareness level where the consumer will reinforce that we, as a Trendsetter Retailer, should keep up the good work,” said Edward Carroll, executive vice president.
Meanwhile, UNITE — the Union of Needletrades, Industrial & Textile Employees — will unveil its new anti-sweatshop message during the commemoration of the 85th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire in New York on Sunday.
The effort mixes words and images, in an artwork designed by Barbara Kruger. A woman’s head is set behind a starburst emanating from her eye, with the words: “These clothes were not made by exploited women and children in non-union shops,” surrounding the image.
The union will reproduce the art on T-shirts and shopping bags and will distribute them to consumers.