More than 200 professionals representing almost every aspect of the U.S. garment industry attended the forum. So did dozens of consumer and worker rights advocates. U.S. Secretary of Labor Robert B. Reich, who chaired the all-day meeting, won applause for bringing together so many diverse interests under one roof.
There, on a stage brightly lit for television cameras, some of the biggest names in the U.S. fashion business put their best foot forward. Gone were the denials and excuses you often hear about the abominable working conditions festering in much of today's garment industry. Speaker after speaker from the business side--12 of them in all--made explicit or implicit commitments to help eradicate what Reich called "the scurvy of sweatshops."
Just to remind everybody of what the "scurvy" involves, Roberta Baskin of CBS News was there to tell what she had seen--and recorded on videotape--in the sweatshops of Pakistan and Indonesia. A New York City garment worker was there to testify about her nine rough years in a Manhattan sweatshop. And Neil Kearney of the Garment Workers Federation was there to provide insights into what he knows from visits to garment workshops in more than 100 countries.
"Today, 160 countries are producing fashion goods for export into the markets of only about 30 nations," Kearney said. This unprecedented competition, which pits countries, companies, and workers against each other, has generated a "downward spiral in labor standards." El Salvador, for instance, has created 50,000 jobs in its garment sector, with an 4,000% increase in exports, and yet: "Real wages have halved, with the women workers now worse off than before industrialization. They can't afford the clothes they themselves produce and instead wear second-hand imports."A Real-Life Drama: TV's Kathie Lee Fights Back
Such grim information is not new. It has now become newsworthy, however, through the sudden convergence of events involving a highly respected TV celebrity, Kathie Lee Gifford, co-host of the daily "Live with Regis and Kathie Lee" talk show and a generous donor to children's charities. In other words, it would seem out of character for her to be profiting from child labor and other abuses committed in sweatshops that produce the Wal-Mart clothing line bearing her name. That, however, has indeed been the case. At the Forum, Gifford narrated again, as she has done in Congress and on national television, how she was hit hard, as with a sledgehammer, when she first learned about the sweatshop origins of some of her Kathie Lee line of clothing.
"My first reaction was to run," she said. Instead, because hers is not an isolated case, she is supporting legislation to employ sanctions against countries and corporations that turn a blind eye to child exploitation in their export industries. In her own domain, she is instituting reforms with "my Wal-Mart partner" and trying to create a "national model of what is right," including an independent monitoring organization as her own "watchdog.".
It's Not a New Story for World's Largest Retailer, Wal-Mart
Wal-Mart, the largest retailer in the world, has been on the spot before. In 1992, for example, a Dateline TV program exposed how a factory in Bangladesh, employing children as young as 9 for about eight cents an hour, was making shirts bearing the Wal-Mart brand name. Outside of the oil industry, no U.S. company has a greater volume of imports from overseas suppliers.
At the Forum, with Mrs. Gifford sitting next to him, H. Lee Scott Jr., executive vice president for merchandise and sales at Wal-Mart, talked about developing an "increased sense of urgency" to root out child labor and other abusive practices by contractors and subcontractors. Among other things, Wal-Mart would start inspecting the plants of U.S. suppliers--previously, they "didn't believe it was necessary." In fact, they didn't even know some of their subcontractors. It took Wal-Mart two days, according to Mrs. Gifford, to identify the Kathie Lee-brand subcontractor in Manhattan whose failure to pay wages to workers erupted into the news.
Scott also described increased inspections that Wal-Mart has undertaken overseas. He did not comment on Mrs. Gifford's plan to engage her own "watchdog organization" to inspect the plants producing her clothing line. Independent monitoring is an idea not at all fashionable in the industry.
The good intentions expressed at the Fashion Industry Forum will be tested by whether Wal-Mart and other retailers adopt that idea. And by whether increased public awareness will led to improvements in the lives of 30 million workers, mostly women, in the fashion industry world-wide.
"Central to what we do here," Sister Gallagher, president of Marymount, said in her welcoming speech, "is to instill a concern for social justice and a commitment to living in an ethically responsible way." Participation in the Forum, she said, should advance ways of "doing what is morally right--taking the high road, if you will, by treating workers with basic fairness and simple dignity."
The University's Center for Ethical Concerns focuses on real-life issues of the global marketplace, such as sweatshop labor. In this, Marymount is unusual, according to friend of mine, Jeff Ballinger, head of Press for Change. In an informal survey that he has taken over the years, Ballinger has found that professors of business ethics do not take up international worker rights issues in their courses. The very question would cause some profs to freeze up. Others displayed an negative attitude that said, "What's this got to do with the real world?"
Ballinger's survey may be incomplete. I'd welcome information that contradicts his findings.
For a copy of the shopping study, call Marymount's Center for Ethical Concerns at 703/284-156l, or send email to: pbyers@marymount edu.
In a New York Times interview, James Gustave Speth, administrator of the UN agency that issued the report, said:
"An emerging global elite, mostly urban-based and interconnected in a variety of ways, is amassing great wealth and power, while more than half of humanity is left out....For the [three billion] poor people in this two-class world, it is a breeding ground for hopelessness, for anger, for frustration."Like its annual predecessors, the 1996 UNDP report is a goldmine of information about the status of humankind. We will sift its 229 pages for nuggets to highlight in future editions of this Bulletin. Human Development Report 1996 is published by Oxford University Press at $18.95 in paperback.
Bulletin No. 9: July 18, 1996