Anybody in any community can have a target in their own community. Not everyone has a Wal-Mart, for example.”
Wal-Mart Stores Inc. was also named in the suit.
With 4,171 stores under the Gap, Old Navy and Banana Republic names, Salazar continued, “They’re right across the street from many college campuses, so there are many places people can go and express their feelings to the managers. It’s a target that is also attractive because they have so many retail outlets easily available.”
For their part, Gap officials believe they have solid systems in place to make sure they only do business with factories that provide appropriate working conditions for their employees. They express something approaching frustration that they’re accused of buying from sweatshops.
“We really believe that we have one of the most progressive compliance programs in place,” said a Gap spokesman. “The irony is that we are one of the industry leaders. We work with independent monitoring groups, we work with [non-governmental organizations], we work with nonprofit groups. Gap Inc. and these other groups, we’re all focused on making sure that workers are treated fairly, with respect. Our focus seems to be very similar.”
He pointed out that Gap has about 90 full-time staffers in its compliance program, who are charged with inspecting factories to make sure they comply with all the regulations in Gap’s code of vendor conduct, which covers wages, child labor, safety issues and the right of workers to unionize. Those staffers, called vendor compliance officers, monitor the approximately 3,600 facilities in 50 countries where the Gap does business.
Gap’s Web site notes that 15 percent of the factories it reviewed last year were found not to meet company standards and were not approved for orders.
UNITE’s most recent complaints about Gap production focused on Shin Won, a Guatemalan factory. During the WEF demonstrations, a former worker from that plant named Sofia Sazo claimed that factory managers denied workers access to the bathroom, underpaid them and sometimes struck them.
The Gap spokesman countered that Sazo left the factory in June 2000 and said since then, Gap hired an independent monitoring group called Coverco to inspect the factory. It found only minor violations of Gap’s code of conduct, which have since been rectified, the spokesman said.
“Shin Won is an excellent example of not only our own compliance efforts, but the fact that we worked with Coverco and independent monitors,” he added.
At UNITE, president Bruce Raynor stood by his group’s claims.
“We don’t buy monitoring at all,” he said. “Our view of it is that they know how many stitches are on every seam and if the contractor is making a mistake they’re all over it. If they know how many stitches are in each seam, then they know exactly whether the women are getting bathroom breaks.”
He said the union is singling Gap out because of its lax labor standards.
“The reality is that conditions in the Gap’s factories worldwide are among the worst in the industry,” he said. “Our goal, which I think we’re achieving, is to tie in the consumer mind and the public mind, Gap and sweatshops. It will be disruptive to the effectiveness of their company.”
An association between a brand name and sweatshops can be a powerful and lasting one. In 1996, the National Labor Committee rocked the retailing world and Seventh Avenue with its disclosure that the Kathie Lee Gifford line of apparel, produced by Kellwood for Wal-Mart, was made by child laborers in Honduras. Following that case, Gifford became active in the fight against sweatshops and her husband, the former football star Frank Gifford, later handed out envelopes full of cash to workers in a Chinatown factory producing her clothing that was found to be a sweatshop.
Dan Dyson, a member of the NLC board who is a Presbyterian minister in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, said that a parishioner of his recently applied for a job at a discount store chain and was told during the interview, “We’re not going to Kathie Lee Gifford you here.”
He added, “Everybody knew what that meant” — namely, that he wouldn’t be asked to work in unreasonable conditions.
He was less sure of whether conditions at factories Gap buys from are worse than industry norms.
“It’s very hard to say, because the situation is so fluid. If I were to say that we’d go and investigate, certainly the Gap has a better code of conduct and public pronouncements on labor relations, which raised expectations,” he said. “The answer is hard to know. Sometimes they do and sometimes they don’t.”
He suggested that part of the reason activists may have turned against the Gap, which first adopted a code of vendor conduct a decade ago, is a sense the company hasn’t done as much to improve workers’ lot as it could have.
“Some great strides were made in the mid-1990s. There were great hopes on the part of the human rights activists that the Gap would become a leader in this field,” he said. “They made some changes in individual factories, but overall the policies seem to be the same: The face to the bottom for the lowest common denominator, the most miserable conditions, the lowest wages.”
One bitter point between labor activists and the Gap is that the company continues to fight the Saipan suit. Since it was brought, 19 companies — including several who bought from Saipan factories but were not named in the complaint — have agreed to a pending $8.75 million settlement. Gap is one of a handful of U.S. firms, including Levi Strauss & Co. and Liz Claiborne Inc., who continue to fight the suit. Labor advocates said they believe Gap is the driving force of the resistance.
(If the settlement is approved, most of the money will go to the island’s garment workers.)
Global Exchange’s Salazar said she believes the companies who agreed to settle, which include Sears, Roebuck & Co. and Calvin Klein Inc., “wanted to do the right thing and did not want to have the public pressure on them. But the Gap continues to deny they are involved in any wrongdoing. They continue to question us on our definition of sweatshops.”
For his part, the Gap spokesman agreed with part of her statement. While he didn’t want to say too much because the suit is still pending, he said Gap is fighting the suit because “we believe the allegations against us are false.”
UNITE’s Raynor said that response is one of the reasons his group is protesting the company’s practices.
“What makes them more of a target is arrogance,” he said. “They respond to criticism by saying that we don’t accept any responsibility for the conditions.”
The perception that Gap’s response is an arrogant one may have a lot to do with the company’s being chosen as a target. When asked to name some companies who he believed were making a good effort to improve working conditions in garment plants, Raynor named Liz Claiborne and Levi’s.
Both those companies also maintain detailed codes of vendor conduct, use staff members and outside organizations to monitor vendor compliance. Levi’s is also fighting the Saipan suit, while Liz Claiborne is among those firms that have settled.
Yet when asked to describe Claiborne’s relationship with workers and workers rights groups, Roberta Karp, senior vice president of corporate affairs and general counsel — who had not been told about Raynor’s comment — responded, “We have no arrogance.”
“It does not exist here on those issues at all. We have a very open mind to reach out to people, even people who might be looking to criticize us,” said Karp. “We’re willing to push back when we need to, but we pick those spots carefully. Because we do that, we have a reputation of credibility.”
Karp did not comment on Gap’s labor practices.
Told of Raynor’s claim the Gap is arrogant, the Gap spokesman replied, “Our focus is really on the workers and making sure of what we’re doing in regards to compliance and our monitoring efforts. If anyone is interested and would like to know what we’re doing, we have the information available to them.”
At Business for Social Responsibility, also in San Francisco, vice president for business and human rights Aaron Kramer pointed out that, in addition to picking recognizable targets, labor activists tend to focus their efforts on companies whose behavior they think can be changed.
“Attention to a particular brand doesn’t necessarily mean that brand is the least committed or engaging in the worst practices by any stretch,” said Kramer, whose group works with companies to help them develop ethical systems of operations. “Companies that take issues most seriously are often viewed by [non-governmental organizations] and others as the most useful to focus on because they know they’ll get a response.”