Walt Disney Co. and the importer of the Kathie Lee signature clothing line sold at Wal-Mart discount stores were cited Monday by a human rights organization as examples of firms that knowingly import clothing made by foreign contractors who exploit workers.
The charge came before a hearing of the House Democratic Policy Committee, which invited human rights activists to publicly identify U.S. firms whose clothing lines include imported garments allegedly manufactured by underage or abused workers. The committee is used by the Democratic Party leadership to help develop key legislation.
The companies denied the charges. Wal-Mart said its policies prohibit accepting goods manufactured under abusive conditions. Burbank-based Disney, which markets an extensive line of imported clothing, said it found no minimum-wage violations for workers making its garments in Haiti.
The hearing was convened by California Rep. George Miller (D-Martinez), who said the public criticism is intended to "bring pressure to bear to improve conditions." Miller and Rep. James P. Moran (D-Va.) are sponsoring legislation to establish a certification process requiring foreign governments to enforce their own child labor laws before receiving any U.S. assistance.
"Under the current rules of the free-trade game, the manufacturer who makes the best product at the cheapest price wins," Miller said. "Unfortunately, very often the cheap price may mask dreadful working conditions [such as] chaining a 4-year-old child to a carpet loom, locking 14-year Honduran girls into a sweatshop, destroying invaluable rain forests."
Charles Kernaghan, executive director of the National Labor Committee, told the congressional panel that the Kathie Lee clothing line, named after television talk show co-host Kathie Lee Gifford, is manufactured in Honduras by girls as young as 13. Kernaghan, whose New York-based organization monitors human rights and labor issues, said the young Hondurans are sometimes forced to work 12-hour shifts.
"A 75-hour week is not uncommon," said Kernaghan, who noted that a tag affixed to Kathie Lee clothing promises to donate a share of the profits to children's charities.
A spokesman for Wal-Mart said the plant in Honduras is no longer used to make the Kathie Lee garments.
"Wal-Mart has a very strict vendor agreement which describes all the conditions that must be met," said Dale Ingram, Wal-Mart director of public relations. "That includes no use of child labor. If we find child labor, we will immediately sever all business."
Responding to the criticism, Gifford released a statement saying she was "totally unaware of any problems with the manufacturing of the Kathie Lee Gifford Collection at the Choloma, Honduras, plant or with any other vendor utilizing improper manufacturing practices." She said the business relationship with the Choloma plant had been severed, adding that she "would never condone, tolerate or accept the exploitation of children."
Kernaghan's organization told Miller's panel that Disney has marketed Pocahontas T-shirts made by impoverished Haitian children and adults, who receive an average of 25 cents for manufacturing a shirt with a retail price of $11. "The workers are on the edge of starvation, going to bed hungry," he said. "The children are unable to go to school."
His account was challenged by a Disney spokesman. "Disney has investigated this and found no minimum-wage violations in Haiti," said Chuck Champlin, director of communications for Disney Consumer Products. He said Disney executives attempted to work with Kernaghan's group as soon as they were made aware of its findings. "We called six or seven times, and they never returned the calls," he said.
Kernaghan later said he had just returned from Haiti on Saturday night and that abuses involving Disney clothing are ongoing. He said the minimum wage in Haiti is 28 cents an hour.
Kernaghan cited Gap, Levi Strauss and Liz Claiborne as companies that were vigilant in making sure their clothing was not produced in abusive conditions.