NEWS STORY: Campaign: No `sweatshop gifts’ during holiday season

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c. 1997 Religion News Service

MADISON, Wis. _ As the holiday season approaches, a broad coalition of religious, human rights and labor groups is calling on American consumers to”shop with their consciences,”not their pocketbooks.

The Holiday Season of Conscience was kicked off here and in more than 40 other towns and cities during the Oct. 4-5 weekend to promote awareness of child labor and sweatshop abuses under which many imported products are manufactured. It has a simple message: The small decisions consumers make every day tie into a much larger picture.”The purpose is not to overwhelm people,”said Angel Adams, a member of Madison’s University Community Church, who helped organize the Madison events.”You can’t monitor every piece of clothing you buy, but you can start with things that are in the range of your control,”she added.

Sweatshops vaulted into public visibility a year ago, thanks to the National Labor Committee, an independent human rights organization and the chief architect of the Holiday Season of Conscience Campaign.

Committee director Charles Kernaghan drew publicity to the issue after writing a letter to Kathie Lee Gifford criticizing the working conditions in factories in Honduras, where he said young women worked long hours for little pay to assemble clothing for Gifford’s Wal-Mart-sponsored clothing label.

The Holiday Season of Conscience campaign is endorsed by more than 120 organizations including the Presbyterian Church (USA), the United Methodist Church, the Episcopal Church, Catholic and Jewish groups, Unitarian churches, the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility and the People of Faith Network.”People can say `no’ to child labor because children belong in school. People can say `no’ to the exploitation of teen-aged girls forced to work long hours in sweatshop conditions under armed guards and threat of sexual abuse (and they) can say `no’ to workers being stripped of their rights and fined or blacklisted when they try to organize to defend their rights,”United Methodist Bishop Fritz Mutti of Topeka, Kansas, told a Topeka news conference announcing the Rural Religion and Labor Council’s endorsement of the campaign.

Many of the companies under fire for labor abuses have corporate codes of conduct requiring safe workplaces, reasonable work hours, and sufficient pay. But according to Kernaghan, the codes are often”100 percent public relations …”Most of the codes, he said, have not been translated into foreign languages.

Factory workers often don’t know who they work for, much less that certain rights are provided for them under company policy.

Employers criticized by the National Labor Committee include Disney, the Gap, Wal-Mart, Nike and Reebok _ corporations Kernaghan said should be concerned about protecting more than their copyrights. “Think how stupid this is: Labels are protected under trade laws, but not the workers,”Kernaghan said.”On a can of tuna we can look at it and tell if dolphins were hurt, but when we buy clothes we can’t tell if they were made overseas by children. It’s asinine.” (OPTIONAL TRIM FOLLOWS – STORY MAY END HERE.)

In a visit to Haiti last year, Kernaghan said he found Disney workers who were earning 28 cents an hour and living in one-room huts with dirt floor and roofs that leaked every time it rained.

Wages aren’t the only concern, however.

Meg Lewis, director of the Colombia Support Network in Madison and an organizer of a”Sweatshop fashion show”held Saturday (Oct. 4) in the city’s Capitol Square, said the young women working in Colombian greenhouses have more to worry about than low wages.”The greenhouses use pesticides illegal in the U.S.,”she said.”Workers get leukemia and cancer. Their children have high rates of birth defects, and the pesticides get into the drinking water.” The White House, in an effort to insure consumers are able to tell whether products are made under fair, decent labor conditions, last year set up the Apparel Industry Partnership. Jonathan D. Rosenblum, a legal council for the International Labor Rights Fund, said talks between human rights groups and corporations are in their final stages.

One proposal before the group is for independent monitoring of factories overseas by religious or human rights groups.

Earlier this week, Congress sent President Clinton a bill limiting imports of goods produced by”forced or indentured child labor.”Lawmakers estimated the U.S. currently imports about $100 million worth of such products each year.

Clinton is expected to sign the bill.

Kernaghan is confident the American public _”decent people with a sense of justice”_ will stand behind the campaign.”No one wants to buy something made in a sweatshop,”he said.”To say it’s close to slavery wouldn’t be over-stating it.” MJP END JONGSMA

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