National Catholic Register

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Religious Coalition Targets Unfair Labor Practices

BY Peter Feuerherd

December 8-14, 1996 Issue | Posted 12/8/96 at 2:00 PM

 

MICHAEL EISNER, chairman and CEO of the Disney Corporation, made $14.78 million in 1995. A lesser member of the Disney family, call him Pierre, makes souvenir clothes in Haiti for the Disney theme stores found in many American shopping malls. Pierre makes 28 cents an hour.

A new coalition of religious leaders, joining with the U.S. labor department, is working to call attention to the plight of scores of sweatshop workers laboring for Disney and other American-based firms.

At an Oct. 22 press conference in Washington, outgoing labor secretary Robert Reich noted that it's the job of his department to enforce fair labor standards. But, he emphasized, churches and synagogues can act as vehicles to spur consciences on the evils of exploiting sweat-shop labor. “We are the enforcers,” he said. “The public and religious groups must be the reinforcers.”

Religious groups have been carrying the banner against sweatshop labor throughout the past decade, often operating in obscurity. Jewish and Protestant leaders were among those represented at the Washington press conference. They were joined by representatives of the United States Catholic Conference (USCC), the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate, Network, the Mercy Sisters, and other Catholic groups.

The religious coalition might still be working in obscurity if not for a controversy that erupted last summer involving television personality Kathie Lee Gifford. Her involvement—which began after a company that produced material for her clothing line was accused of exploiting child labor in Central America—escalated the discussion, David Schilling, director of the New York-based Global Corporate Accountability at the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility, told the Register.

American celebrity watchers remember Gifford defending her reputation as a defender of children on her morning talk show, Live With Regis and Kathie Lee. Religious people involved in the corporate responsibility movement, however, note that her personal involvement came only after the spurt of negative publicity. Gifford's high-profile efforts to end child labor, combined with the discovery of a California clothing plant in which low-wage workers lived as virtual prisoners, has changed the dynamic of the discussion, said Schilling. “To [Gifford's] credit, she has really helped,” he said. The result has been a renewed effort by consumers to avoid buying products produced by companies that exploit workers.

Maryknoll Father Joseph La Mar has worked for years with Schilling on the sweat-shop issue. Like other religious communities, Maryknoll, a group noted for its work in foreign missions, has invested in companies for its own pension fund and other needs. As a shareholder, Maryknoll representatives such as Father La Mar have raised questions about corporate labor policies. He said that most corporate executives want to do the right thing, but that business pressures often prevent it. “Most of the companies, when we approach them, agree with us. But, they always say, ‘Father, you don't understand.’” The problem, said Father La Mar, is that corporate executives fear that their businesses will lose their competitive edge if they implement reforms. “If they make the move and no one follows, then they can become a laughing stock,” noted Father La Mar.

One solution, he emphasized, could be the implementation of industry-wide agreements. The Gifford flap showed that companies don't want the public relations headaches caused by being targeted as a social justice pariah. Progress has been made in some companies. For example, the priest said, a factory in El Salvador that made clothing for The Gap is now in the middle of negotiations on new working conditions mediated by the Church there. “We were able to bring in a third-party with no ax to grind to follow through on the relationship between management and labor,” he said.

Pressure brought by Reich has also made it easier for religious groups to formally present complaints about companies via shareholder resolutions. While such measures rarely bring quick results, companies are beginning to feel pressed by increased awareness. Companies that produce soccer balls and baseballs in Central America and Haiti have come under pressure—including through Christmas shopping season boycotts. And, in a repeat of the tactics that brought Gifford around, basketball player Michael Jordan has been regularly pressured in the past year to take a stand on sweatshop conditions in Indonesia where Nike sneakers are made. Jordan, Nike's major spokesman, has argued that he has no control over the company's policies.

Nike, like other companies targeted by the anti-sweatshop movement, has stated that its products are made by independent contractors who live by the labor rules in the countries where they operate. And, executives say, while the wages may be low, they are actually relatively good-paying jobs for unskilled laborers in poor countries. While corporations attempt to defuse the pressure, they are finding that organized consumer movements can affect their bottom lines.

A study sponsored by Marymount University in Arlington, Va., shows that consumers would, if they had access to information, be less likely to shop in stores that sell clothes and other items made in sweatshops. The study, done last year, was sponsored by the school's Center for Ethical Concerns and the Department of Fashion Design and Merchandising. It was prompted by a California case, in which illegal aliens, smuggled into the country, were forced to produce garments under slave labor conditions. Workers had been confined in a barbed wire enclosed compound and forced to work between 16 and 22 hours a day for less than $1 an hour. They were held captive until they had repaid their passage to the United States, a process that sometimes took years.

In the Marymount survey-based on a telephone poll of 1,008 adults-more than 75 percent of consumers said they would be less likely to shop in stores selling sweat-shop-produced merchandise. And 84 percent said they would be willing to pay an extra dollar on a $20 piece of clothing if they could be assured it was produced in a shop with decent working conditions.

Religious of the Sacred Heart Sister Eymard Gallagher, president of Marymount, noted that the study provided a moral dimension for the school's fashion design and merchandising programs. The study showed, she said, that “despite competitiveness in the industry, we can't close our eyes to these kinds of conditions that we thought had disappeared years ago.” Marymount has become a center for analysis of the issue. Besides the study, the school sponsored a seminar on sweatshop labor in the apparel industry last spring. Sister Gallagher was also present at the labor department press conference to lend her support.

According to Schilling, however, the effort to eradicate sweatshop labor needs to reach the grassroots level of local congregations. He suggested that parish committees write retailers to find out if they are selling merchandise produced in sweatshops. While companies like Nike and Disney contend that products made abroad for them are produced by independent contractors beholden to local fair labor practices, Schilling and other activists don't accept that explanation. Pressure on multinational firms can change labor practices, he asserted. “Start at the store level. The key is to start there and then begin discussions with company headquarters,” he said.

Catholics, in particular, noted Schilling, who is a Methodist minister, can refer to the U.S. bishops' pastoral on the economy issued in 1985 that argued that economic decisions could not be made in a valueless moral vacuum. He also emphasized the role that religious communities like Maryknoll have played in raising the issue with corporations where they have invested funds.

The increased attention on the sweat-shops has even led to the launching of a web-site (http://www.dol.gov) operated by the labor department, which lists both companies that have been known to violate labor standards and those which have made improvements.

Peter Feuerherd is based in New York.