WASHINGTON — Labor activist Charles Kernaghan is going after Kathie Lee Gifford and Nike again.
In a press conference Wednesday, Kernaghan, executive director of the National Labor Committee, charged that Gifford, Wal-Mart and many of the nation’s leading apparel retailers are ignoring blatant workplace abuses by Chinese contract factories, including virtual slavery.
Kernaghan produced a report that alleged Chinese facilities making apparel and accessories for Wal-Mart, as well as footwear and apparel for Nike, force workers to work up to 98 hours a week at about 20 cents an hour with no overtime pay.
“The conditions were brutal and would shock the American people,” Kernaghan said in releasing the report to coincide with Senate consideration of legislation that would grant permanent normal trade relations status to China, instead of requiring annual renewals. Allegations in the 117-page study were based on inspections conducted at these shops by Kernaghan and others between last July and January.
“In a factory producing Kathie Lee handbags for Wal-Mart,” he told reporters, “workers were held under conditions of indentured servitude+ and 46 percent of the workers were actually in debt to the company.”
Kernaghan produced purported Chinese customs service documents tying production of Kathie Lee brand handbags to one allegedly egregious facility.
Joined by Chinese dissidents Harry Wu and Wei Jingsheng, he said the U.S. should not grant China PNTR, arguing this is the only lever to push China toward international labor rights norms. In fact, Kernaghan said that contrary to the Clinton administration’s claims, increased U.S. business investment in China has seen a deterioration of worker rights.
“The fact is that these companies are more concerned about protecting their intellectual property rights in China than human rights,” he said.
Nike, in a statement issued after Kernaghan’s press conference, denied the various allegations and “‘research’+ produced by organizations whose focus has been to criticize Nike in order to attack an increasingly global economy.”
Nike’s statement also said that it did not believe that Kernaghan’s group was in the factories where its products are made and that it has independent monitoring teams in place.
Kathie Lee Gifford and Wal-Mart issued a statement Wednesday after the press conference saying that Kernaghan “continued his campaign of lies and deceptions regarding the line of Kathie Lee clothing, handbags and other accessories sold by Wal-Mart.”
The statement added that “neither Wal-Mart nor Gifford has any record of any relationship with a company or factory by this name anywhere in the world.”
Talk show host Gifford has been under attack for about four years. The widely publicized incident in which apparel being manufactured in sweatshops in New York and Honduras for Wal-Mart’s Kathie Lee Collection — which generates about $700 million for the giant retailer — led to Gifford hiring an independent monitoring team in 1996 to address the sweatshop issue. The NLC had exposed factories in Honduras where illegal child labor was being used to make apparel bearing the Kathie Lee label.