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Garment-Workers' Union Revolts Against Sweatshop Abuse

Retailers balk, but union members see federal bill as a way to protect their jobs.

Frances Jackson makes her living sewing pants for Corbin Ltd. in Huntington, W.Va. A 16-year veteran of the company, Ms. Jackson says that a decade ago her factory made 4,400 trousers a day. Lately, that figure is down to 1,600.

The culprit? Competition, she says, from low-paying factories - commonly known as sweatshops - that are located both in the United States and in other nations around the world.

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"My employer can't win contracts against sweatshops that pay their workers much less than $5 an hour," Jackson says.

So on a recent day this summer, Jackson and 2,000 fellow members of America's largest garment workers' union are fanning out over Capitol Hill to muster support for legislation that might help. Some 50 buses disgorge members of the union from Jackson's home of Huntington as well as from Boston, Philadelphia, and Whiteville, N.C.

Although public attention to sweatshops was piqued in the spring of 1996 when it came out that entertainer Kathie Lee Gifford's clothing line was made by exploited workers in Honduras and New York City, little progress has been made to curb the proliferation of such shops, says Ramon Rodriguez, an organizer with the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees (UNITE). The Department of Labor estimates roughly 22,000 sweatshops exist nationwide.

The union workers are pinning their hopes on the Stop Sweatshops Act, a bill sponsored by Sen. Edward Kennedy (D) of Massachusetts and Rep. William Clay (D) of Missouri.

The Stop Sweatshops Act would make large apparel retailers - such as Sears and Kmart - liable for ensuring that their clothing contractors abide by federal wage laws while operating safe and sanitary factories. A garment worker who failed to receive the minimum wage or overtime pay could petition the retailer who ultimately bought the clothing.

"The big clothingmakers rely on these sweatshops. We've got to make them responsible," Jackson says.

The legislation would also substantially increase the number of federal inspectors, currently numbering about 900, who examine the more than 6.5 million workplaces nationwide.

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While sympathetic to efforts to close sweatshops, retailers say the legislation would unfairly require them to do what the federal and state governments should do: police and penalize businesses that violate US labor laws.

"The problem with this bill is that it attempts to assign responsibility and impose penalties on people who are farthest away from the actual production - the retailers who buy goods," says Morrison Cain, senior vice president of the International Mass Retail Association, an industry group that represents many of the country's largest clothing stores.

"Just because we are the ultimate purchasers," Mr. Cain says, "[that] doesn't mean we control the process."

Meanwhile, UNITE's leaders say support from President Clinton and members of Congress for the proposed antisweatshop legislation has fallen far short of their expectations.

Maria Echaveste, White House deputy chief of staff, counters that the president remains committed to closing sweatshops. Garment unions, she notes, have bogged down separate negotiations to ensure that domestic and international clothing manufacturers abide by fair wage and labor standards. The planned enforcement policy relates to a contractor "code of conduct" signed two years ago by a partnership of retailers, unions, human rights groups, and the White House.

UNITE leaders want an impartial group to enforce the code, while retailers prefer in-house monitors.

In Congress, both the House and Senate versions of the antisweatshop legislation are stuck in committee. That leaves little chance the measure will get a floor vote this year.

If none occurs, says Ann Hoffman, UNITE's legislative director in Washington, "We'll start again next session."

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