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Group Accuses Liz Claiborne of Buying From Salvadoran Sweatshops

Labor: It says contractor violates overtime code drafted by a panel led by an executive of the apparel firm.

September 18, 1998|GEORGE WHITE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Liz Claiborne Inc., an apparel company with an executive appointed by the White House to lead a sweatshop task force, is buying clothing from a contractor that violates that panel's overtime recommendations, a labor group charged Thursday.

National Labor Committee director Charles Kernaghan, an activist who exposed labor violations at plants that produced garments for Kathie Lee Gifford's clothing line at Kmart, said a Salvadoran contractor that supplies Liz Claiborne is forcing its employees to work as many as 92 hours a week. That would violate the task force's voluntary code of conduct, which sets a 60-hour week for overseas factory workers and limits mandatory overtime to 12 hours a week.

New York-based Liz Claiborne said in a statement that it will work with the Salvadoran contractor to correct any problems.

Kernaghan said the violations were discovered in August and September at three factories--all owned by a South Korean firm--near San Salvador. He said he and other members of his nonprofit labor group obtained the information during interviews with more than 20 of the contractor's employees. Kernaghan said an entire work force of about 800 was forced to work excessive overtime at one site.

The voluntary conduct code was issued in April 1997 by the task force, the Apparel Industry Partnership, which includes apparel manufacturers and labor and human rights groups. Liz Claiborne Vice President Roberta Karp is co-chair of the group, which was convened largely because of industry scandals such as the 1995 discovery of enslaved immigrant workers in El Monte and the 1996 disclosures of child labor at a Honduras plant that produced the Gifford line.

The National Labor Committee sent a report on the Claiborne allegations to President Clinton in which it said the Salvadoran employees are receiving "below-subsistence" wages, although Kernaghan acknowledged that the contractor was paying El Salvador's minimum wage. In addition, the report said the Claiborne contractor conducts pregnancy tests, firing employees who test positive.

In the company statement, Karp said Claiborne inspections have led to "certain improvements" at the Salvadoran plants but that "certain problems . . . such as pregnancy testing cannot be solved by one company alone."

The statement also said Claiborne will seek industrywide reforms through the White House task force.

However, Kernaghan said the task force should be disbanded if it cannot quickly address issues such as the need for a "living wage" and independent monitoring of factories.

The panel has not issued any recommendations since its report last year, which recommended the 60-hour workweek for overseas workers, a minimum working age of 14, and guidelines calling on apparel companies and their contractors to pay minimum wage.

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