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You have a right to know about sweatshops

By Fred Gaboury, People's Weekly World, 26 September 1998

NEW YORK - The "People's Right to Know Campaign/Holiday Season of Conscience," Charles Kernaghan said, is "aimed at exposing the location, wages and working conditions" of the foreign factories that produce the majority of clothing sold by Wal-Mart, K-Mart and other high-volume retail chains."

Kernaghan, the director of the National Labor Committee, told the World, "We want them to come out from behind closed doors and make this information public so that consumers know when they're buying items produced by child-labor in sweatshops in Latin America, Southeast Asia or China."

Teenage girls, working behind steel gates and barbed wire fences, produce many of these items, Kernaghan said.

"We want to know where those plants are. We want the Wal-Marts of this world to come out from behind closed doors with this information."

This year's campaign began with release of a report detailing instances of abuse in sweatshops in Bangladesh, Guatemala, Honduras, Haiti, Nicaragua, China and the United States that produce apparel for Wal-Mart.

Other dates for coordinated action include National Right to Work Day on Oct. 3, when scores of actions are planned across the country: walks for the Right to Know; demonstrations, leafleting, rallies, teach-ins, prayer services - each targeting Wal-Mart wherever possible.

During November and December the committee will conduct a nationwide tour of workers from overseas factories producing goods for Wal-Mart.

"We want people to be able to meet them face to face," Barbara Brooks, associate director of the Labor Committee, said.

She called on campaign supporters to set up a visit to their areas. "Talk to your union or minister," she urged.

The committee is also planing activities for Dec. 10. The date, to be marked worldwide as Human Rights Day, will celebrate the 50th anniversary of the adoption of the U.N.'s Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

"Worker rights are a fundamental human right," Brooks said, "and that includes the right of children, some as young as 8, to be in school rather than in sweatshops."

Kernaghan said the campaign has targeted Wal-Mart because it's not only the largest retailer in the world, it is also the biggest importer of clothing made in sweatshops, which employ 250 million children in a far-flung worldwide network.

"If we can move Wal-Mart ... we can change how the entire off-shore production system operates," the committee's report says.

Wal-Mart, which operates 2,819 stores in the U.S., is the largest employer in the country, with 720,000 "associates" earning an average of $6.19 an hour for a 28-hour week.

The retail giant produces clothing in more than 40 countries. Its 1997 sales of $118 billion made it the fourth largest company in the U.S. and 11th largest in the world.

Wal-Mart's 1997 sales were greater than the Gross Domestic Product - the entire economic output - of 155 of the world's 192 countries.

Both Kernaghan and Brooks rejected arguments that Wal-Mart was "compelled" to outsource clothing production because of "global competition."

Wal-Mart's operating profit surged to more than $7.5 billion in 1997. That same year Forbes magazine listed Sam Walton's family as the third richest family in the world, with an estimated fortune upwards of $50 billion.

Wal-Mart CEO David Glass gave himself $4.6 million in 1997 and members of the board receive $1,500 per day.

Kernaghan said the committee is digging in for a two-year battle. "We will not succeed in a few months," he said.

"Too much is at stake; the human rights challenge to business as usual is too great."

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