Season's Beatings

With Christmas just a week away, the mostly women workers at the L.V. Myles plant in Haiti earning pennies an hour are working extra-hard sewing some of the cute Disney clothes children love so much. In Vietnam, hundreds of young women, virtually all younger than 20, are earning 6 cents per hour as they manufacture the little plastic Disney toys that McDonald's includes in its Happy Meals. In China, women workers are spending 86 hours per week making more expensive toys for Disney.

Wages like these would make these plants sweatshops. Part of the reason Disney makes so much money is that the company contracts out so much of its licensed merchandise to sweatshops in Third World nations. So far in 1998, Disney has made $23 billion. And you thought the Seven Dwarves had it tough.

On Nov. 3, President Bill Clinton announced an agreement ostensibly designed to stop such American companies as Disney and Wal-Mart from exploiting Third World labor. In a brief statement, Clinton hailed the agreement as a “historic step toward reducing sweatshop labor around the world.”

Basically, the agreement creates the Fair Labor Association–an industry-run group that would police corporate manufacturing centers in Third World nations. After brief stories in the nation's mainstream newspapers, including the Los Angeles Times, the agreement slipped into media oblivion. As a result, most people probably don't know that organized labor is virtually unanimous in denouncing the agreement as a sham.

“The agreement was not what we hoped it would be,” said Charles Kernaghan, director of the New York-based National Labor Committee (NLC). “It's clearly a Beltway attempt at a solution. I don't think any serious group accepts it.”

Kernaghan isn't alone in his disgust. “The Fair Labor Association neither represents labor nor is fair,” said Medea Benjamin, co-director of the San Francisco-based human-rights group Global Exchange. “This agreement will allow corporations to continue paying poverty wages, violate labor rights and hide their factories overseas.”

Two years ago, during Clinton's re-election campaign, the NLC made a fuss over the Honduras plant that made Kathie Lee Gifford's clothing line for Wal-Mart. Sensing a good issue to shore up his left flank, Clinton stepped into the fight. In August 1996, the White House formed the Apparel Industry Partnership (AIP)–an 18-member task force made up of representatives from religious groups, labor organizations and big corporations–ostensibly to locate and close any sweatshops operated or subcontracted by American companies. But Kernaghan says the agreement fails in three key areas.

First, there's nothing in the agreement forcing companies to divulge the names and addresses of sweatshops they operate under contract. In addition, the agreement allows companies to choose which alleged sweatshops receive Fair Labor Association monitors. “These companies need to stop hiding their sweatshops behind cinderblock walls,” said Kernaghan. “Essentially, this is exactly what we have now.”

Second, the agreement ignores the living-wage issue–an especially sore point concerning the L.V. Myles plant. There, workers earn between 28 cents and 39 cents per hour making Disney-label clothes. That comes to a little less than $3 per day, or not quite $18 for a typical six-day week. Since basic human needs in Haiti–food, shelter and education–require an average of $25 per family per week, the workers at the L.V. Myles plant don't make enough to sustain their families.

Finally, Kernaghan said the agreement treads lightly on China, a country where Disney is contracting major operations. “This agreement is actually worse than having nothing,” he said. “It gives people the impression that these problems have been dealt with.”

An adequate solution, according to the NLC, is to maintain constant community and media pressure on the companies. This has brought results in the past. Disney no longer has “Mickey and Co.”-labeled clothing produced by the New York firm American Character Classics in Yangon, Burma. Following revelations that half of every dollar earned from the clothing line went to the Burmese military government, Disney pulled out. Disney has also ceased operations at one sweatshop in Haiti, leaving only its operations at the L.V. Myles plant.

“The [AIP] agreement doesn't put enough pressure on companies to negotiate,” said Kernaghan. “But pressure from communities is not letting up.”

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