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sweatshop clothing
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Misery of rag-trade slaves in America's Pacific outpost
--Slaves Used to Make Clothes for Sears and JC Penney

March 1, 2003
The Guardian
David Fickling

When Thanh Nguyen was offered the chance to quit her poorly paid factory job in Vietnam and work in one of America's Pacific territories, she saw it as an easy way to a good income. Instead she found herself in a brutal sweatshop where workers were beaten and starved while they made designer clothes for the US retail giants Sears and JC Penney.

Last week a court in Washington found Thanh's Korean boss, Lee Kil-soo, guilty of human trafficking in what the US attorney general, John Ashcroft, described as "nothing less than modern-day slavery".

Lee, who will be sentenced on June 9, owned the Daewoosa Samoa factory, near American Samoa's capital, Pago Pago. It employed 251 immigrant workers from Vietnam and China in appalling conditions. Workers were paid $200 (�126) a month for room and board, for which they received a bunk in a cramped, 36-bed dormitory and three meagre meals a day.

"We had one 2lb chicken for all the factory," says Thanh. "They gave us some potatoes as well. It was very bad food."

Pay was routinely withheld, and when workers went on strike to recover their lost earnings Daewoosa's managers switched off the electricity, making conditions in the overheated compound unbearable.

During the worst dispute in November 2000, Lee allegedly authorised Samoan managers to make an example of one of the Vietnamese seamstresses. Quyen Truong was dragged from her sewing machine by several men, before a Samoan employee gouged out her eye with a plastic pipe.

The clothes the workers made were sold principally under Sears and JC Penney designer brands and included casual and sportswear: the MV Sport clothing produced at the plant turned out varsity sweatshirts carrying the names of American universities; the Spalding brand owned by Daewoosa importer Jacques Moret is a leading producer of women's exercise clothing.

While JC Penney has agreed to pay back wages to Daewoosa's workers, no other company has made any redress for the conditions under which their clothes were made.

Thanh Nguyen, 24, had been initially optimistic about taking her seamstress's skills to American Samoa. The plan appeared to offer vastly better prospects than were available in Hanoi, paying $400 a month compared to the Vietnamese average wage of $30 a month.

These benefits came at a cost: before she could start, she had to pay $4,500 to International Manpower Supply, a Vietnamese export labour agency. Such money was not easy to get hold of, but her parents agreed to remortgage their home to guarantee the sum.

In fact, Thanh earned just $672 in her nine months at the factory. The debt incurred was so high that when the factory was closed late in 2000, Thanh's first feeling was not relief at her escape but fear about how she would pay it off without work.

"I was so nervous and I was crying and crying," she said. "I didn't want to go back to Vietnam because I didn't have the money."

Charles Kernaghan, the director of the national labour committee in Washington, says that American Samoa's ambiguous status makes it the perfect location for labour exploitation.

As a US territory with an economy in need of stimulation, its goods attract no import tariffs in mainland US. They even earn the Made in USA label which some shoppers take as a guarantee of good labour practice.

However, its distance from the US means regulation is slight. More than 7,000 miles from Washington, the territory is so remote that American labour inspectors say they cannot even afford to pay for the journey to examine work conditions.

On top of this, it has looser immigration laws than the mainland US and a raft of favourable tax incentives designed to attract business to its backward economy.

A similar status exists in Saipan, another American territory in the Northern Mariana islands, where thousands of garment workers have filed class action suits against major US clothing and retail companies over their alleged exploitation in sweatshops. In the past 25 years huge numbers of foreign investors from South Korea, Taiwan and the Philippines have set up shop there and in American Samoa to take advantage of their favourable status.

The Washington-based lobby group Vietnam Labour Watch (VLW) believes that American Samoa's government was in cahoots with the Daewoosa factory's owners, pointing to several close connections between Daewoosa and the local authorities.

One of Daewoosa's directors was the wife of American Samoa's lieutenant governor, and the company's lawyer was the brother of the territory's governor.

VLW alleges that American Samoan authorities twisted local immigration laws to allow Daewoosa workers into the territory, and to force them out if their behaviour became troublesome.

Eni Faleomavaega, US congressman for the territory, says American Samoa has learned its lesson and will not be involved with similar extortion again.

But Charles Kernaghan is more sceptical. "There's no way out of this without laws," he says. "It will never be cleaned up by corporations monitoring themselves - it's too easy for them," he says.

 
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