NEWS STORY: THE WORKPLACE: Church leaders drafted in fight to make sweatshops unfashionable

c. 1996 Religion News Service

WASHINGTON _ Leaders from the nation's Protestant, Roman Catholic and Jewish denominations and agencies Tuesday (Oct. 22) pledged to step up their efforts to eradicate sweatshops, and the exploitation of women and child labor at home and abroad."We've been at this struggle for 80 years,"said Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, noting that it was often immigrant Jewish women and children who worked in the sweatshops of the garment industry at the turn of the century and formed some of the most militant unions aimed at ending that exploitation."We must sadly continue that struggle today,"Saperstein said."Sweatshops steal childhood and steal mothers from their children. They are an affront to God." Saperstein made his comments at a news conference at the U.S. Department of Labor, where he was joined by some three dozen religious leaders and grassroots activists involved in the fight against sweatshops, and by Secretary of Labor Robert Reich who has led a year-long government effort to enforce labor laws aimed at eradicating sweatshops.

The groups pledged to step up their anti-sweatshop efforts through education campaigns, selective buying campaigns and possible boycotts of manufacturers and merchants who sell garments made in sweatshops when they can be identified.

The issue of sweatshops and the exploitation of women and child workers broke into the headlines in August 1995, when a government raid on a sweatshop in El Monte, Calif., found 72 garment workers, mostly from Thailand, working in virtual slavery for as little as 70 cents an hour.

Earlier this year, the issue was given even more dramatic force when it was revealed that TV talk show host Kathie Lee Gifford had lent her name to a line of clothing sold by Wal-Mart that was made in a Honduras factory where children worked for as little as 31 cents an hour. Gifford has since become a crusader against sweatshops and child labor.

The International Labor Organization estimates that some 7.3 million children between the ages of 10 and 14 are employed in non-agricultural work around the world. The $45 billion-a-year U.S. garment industry employs about 1 million workers; the Labor Department estimates that 22,000 sewing contractors fail to pay their workers a minimum wage. Many do not pay for overtime work or have serious safety violations that threaten the health of their employees.

Because they operate illegally, the exact number of sweatshops and the size of their labor force in the United States is unknown. The Labor Department, however, has stepped up its investigation of the garment industry and in the past year has conducted more than 200 investigations and won more than $700,000 in wages for 2,500 workers.

Earlier this month, the Department began a series of compliance seminars teaching fashion industry executives how to monitor subcontractor practices. It has also begun publishing a"Trendsetter List"of retailers and manufacturers who have pledged to help eradicate sweatshops and to ensure their shelves are stocked with non-sweatshop goods. Among the firms that have made the pledge are The Gap, Banana Republic, Old Navy, GapKid, Talbot's, J.C. Penney and K-Mart. Reich said a new list will be available for consumers by Thanksgiving."Sweatshop labor, which we had thought banned from American life, is back,"said the Rev. Pharis Harvey, executive director of the International Labor Rights Fund who represented the United Methodist General Board of Global Ministries at the Labor Department meeting."Further, sweatshop conditions characterize the labor of much of the global economy in which our trade policies and practices involve us,"Harvey added."We know that we ignore these conditions at the peril of our own well-being, our own moral integrity, our own faith and calling to be our neighbors' keepers." Harvey wryly noted that the religious denominations represented at the Labor Department meeting had a history of involvement challenging oppressive workplace practices long before they became a fashionable bipartisan political issue."Our historic faith journey began in a general strike against the sweatshops of Egypt,"he said, referring to the biblical story of the Exodus.

Reich said he called the meeting of the religious leaders to encourage them to spread the anti-sweatshop message through their denominations."This is not just an economic issue; it is a also a moral issue,"Reich said."Sweatshops are wrong _ wrong not only for our country's economic future, but wrong simply because the exploitation of working people is antithetical to America's values _ our family values, our community values and our moral and religious values." Noting that the"power of the pulpit is an extraordinary power,"Reich urged the religious leaders to make their congregants aware of the problems and, noting the upcoming holiday season, to let retailers and manufacturers know they will not buy garments manufactured by sweatshops."We know what it is to work for nothing,"said the Rev. Archie Le Mone of the Progressive National Baptist Convention, a historically African-American denomination."This is not only a human rights issue, but about the right to be human. We can't sit by idly while people are being dehumanized in order to make their daily bread."_______

Groups represented at the Labor Department meeting included: Alliance of Baptists; American Jewish Congress; Bread for the World; B'nai B'rith; Church Women United; Church of the Brethren; Friends Committee on National Legislation; General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists; Hillel; the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America's Institute for Mission in the USA; Interfaith Center for Corporate Responsibility; Jewish Labor Committee; Marymount University; National Council of Jewish Women; National Association of Evangelicals; Network, the Roman Catholic social justice organization; Presbyterian Church (USA); Progressive National Baptist Convention; Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism; Sisters of Mercy of the Americas; Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate; United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism; the Episcopal Church; Unitarian Universalist Association; United Methodist Church General Board of Church and Society; United Methodist Church General Board of Global Ministries; U.S. Catholic Conference; the United Church of Christ.