November 17, 2005

Kernaghan Relates Sweatshop Horrors

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One of the world’s foremost advocates for ending human rights violations in sweatshops, Charles Kernaghan, spoke to an overflow audience last night about his experiences exposing abuses while head of the National Labor Committee. Kernaghan became famous after testifying before Congress that the skirts sold under Kathy Lee Gifford’s Wal-Mart clothing line used a sweatshop employing 130 teenage girls working 13-hour days in 1996.

Holding a major league baseball in his hand, Kernaghan began by explaining to the crowd that the baseball used in the World Series was made in Costa Rica, where workers “get 15 minutes to sew the balls, work 10 hours a day in 97-degree temperature and end up earning 1 cent above the poverty-level wage.”

“And by the way,” he added, “they have not received a raise in 13 years.”

Describing how workers are “trapped in their misery,” much of the lecture focused on similar stories of abuses at sweatshops in contract with the largest companies in the world. Holding up an NFL jersey, which he bought in New York for $75, Kernaghan explained how workers “end up getting three tenths of one percent of the selling price in their wages” in the sweatshop that produces them in Honduras.

The room fell silent as Kernaghan explained the situation in Bangladesh, which he described as even more dire. In the free-trade zone there, 130,000 sweatshop workers in most cases are forced to produce clothing “from 7:30 in the morning until 9:00 at night, seven days a week, with an average of two days off in the last four months.”

Two nights a week, he said, “supervisors keep [workers] up 19 and a half hours, in order for the [ships] to leave on time with the clothing.”

He told the story of a girl he found whose job it was to chalk clothing where the label is to be placed for Wal-Mart’s Sport-Rack line. She told him that her supervisors required her to mark 200 garments an hour.

“When she fell behind,” he said “the supervisor would slap her face, and tell her she’s a prostitute and a whore.”

As he was leaving the factory, she told him, “I feel like I’m dying, I’m so sick and exhausted.” She was 13 years old, had been working in factories since she was 5.

Although his focus was not on Wal-Mart’s labor policies, he did spend some time analyzing how the largest company in the world could sell clothes so cheaply. He took a Wal-Mart shirt on a trip with him to China and asked a sweatshop owner how much it would cost to produce, and was offered a price of $4.70 for labor – half the cost of labor in the United States.

He went on to describe how the young girls working in sweatshops making Wal-Mart clothing cannot afford to buy a toothbrush.

“You can work for the largest company in the world, but you brush your teeth with your fingers,” he said.

Similarly, in a conversation with a sweatshop owner about Wal-Mart, he was told “[the owner] said to Wal-Mart, give me one penny more per shirt … I’ll improve all [my workers’] lives.”

According to Kernaghan, the response the owner got from Wal-Mart was “No, and cut your prices by 2 cents.”

As just one anecdote from his travels, he said that it’s “time we take our country back again … we belong at the table to discuss the global economy.”

Both Cornell Organization for Labor Action [COLA], and Cornell Students Against Sweatshops sponsored his speech. Jordan Wells ’07, President of COLA, said that “what we really want to come out of this is to generate new awareness and new activists … because I think that we have a responsibility as students and the right as students to make sure our clothes sold at our school are not made in sweatshops.”

COLA, along with Cornell Students Against Sweatshops, has been actively involved in a campaign this semester to encourage the University administration to endorse a policy supporting fair labor practices for the workers that make Cornell clothing.

Adam Harrison ’06 came to hear Kernaghan speak because “these are problems that aren’t going to go away by ignoring them, and as consumers we need to share in responsibility for how people … are treated.”

Kernaghan ended his lecture pleading with the audience to understand that “if we don’t know [abuses] exist, they don’t exist.”

He added that one of the great ironies is that “corporations demand all sorts of laws to protect their products … international property laws and copyright laws.” He explained how corporations tell his organization that they need those laws to “create a level playing field in a global economy.”

Kernaghan’s response is that we also must protect the workers who make the clothing. However, he said “the corporations say we can’t protect [workers’] rights because that would be an impediment to free trade.”

Nina Fixell ’07 said “I know his organization … can really change people’s minds.”

Archived article by Scott Rosenthal
Sun Staff Writer