9 US Multinationals cited for Labour Rights violations

U.S. Firms Cited for Violating Workers Rights Overseas NEW YORK, Dec 2 (IPS) - Nine U.S. clothing companies, including such giants as Nike and Disney, are guilty of allowing low wages and poor working conditions in their foreign operations, says the U.S. labour rights group, the National Labour Committee (NLC). The Committee accused Nike, Disney, Wal-Mart, Guess, K-Mart, J.C. Penney, Esprit, May Co. and Victoria's Secret of allowing subcontractors overseas to violate the labour rights of local workers.

''This is not a call for a boycott or (an action) meant to hurt the companies financially,'' said Charles Kernaghan, the Committee's executive director. ''Nor is it an effort to take jobs out of the developing world - but rather, (it is) to ensure that these are jobs with justice that pay a living wage.''

An NLC study cited wages as low as 15 cents-an-hour for women workers who make clothes for Wal-Mart, K-Mart and J.C. Penney subcontractors in Nicaragua. The average wage the Committee found in the Nicaragua sweatshops was only 1.84 dollars a day, in a country where milk for two infants costs more than four dollars a week.

In Haiti, Disney stands accused of allowing subcontractors to pay an average wage of only 57 cents an hour. This meant workers could not even earn the 30 dollars a week that a diet of rice and beans is estimated to cost for a small family. ''We hardly know what meat is here,'' one worker told an NLC researcher. ''We try to buy milk, just for the baby, but not every day.''

Nike, Esprit and Disney were cited for operating facilities in China were workers allegedly are underpaid and prevented from forming unions. May Department Stores' overseas manufacturing in Indonesia and Victoria's Secret/Limited's facilities in the Dominican Republic also came under fire in the survey.

Guess, a jeans company, was previously cited by the U.S. Labour Department in 1992 for violating U.S. wage and working-hour laws, and was forced to pay more than half a million dollars in back wages to workers. Last summer, Labour Department inspectors in California found evidence of garment construction for Guess clothing at homes in Los Angeles. Immigrant women were illegally stitching clothes at their own homes, and the company again faces fines for non-payment of overtime wages.

Many of the companies attacked in the survey have fended off accusations from labour groups over the past few years by arguing that they are bringing jobs to the developing world. A Disney spokesman, for example, told IPS that the company was providing good jobs at adequate wages in Haiti at a time when few outside firms were bringing employment to that country.

''Nike has been a potent economic stimulus,'' Nike spokesman Vada Manager argued last month. ''It has had an impact on the lives of workers ... We provide some 500,000 jobs around the world, and they are good jobs with superior wages.''

Other companies responded to reports of labour violations by moving out of some countries noted for labour abuses entirely. When Wal-Mart's line of 'Kathie Lee' clothing was found two years ago to have been sewn in Honduras by mostly teen-aged girls working in locked quarters for extremely long hours, Wal-Mart promptly relocated much of its apparel work to nearby Nicaragua, where wages also were low.

Ironically, the NLC's Kernaghan recently wrote Wal-Mart Chief Executive Officer David Glass to ask the company to remain in Nicaragua after reports that Wal-Mart was contemplating another move when the NLC documented worker abuses there. According to the NLC, women seeking to form unions in Nicaragua's free-trade zone have been fired, while other workers have been subject to humiliating body searches and low wages.

Kernaghan argued that the current effort to list major U.S. violators is intended to challenge them to ''do the right thing'' by enforcing company codes of conduct and monitoring the conditions imposed by their subcontractors.

''No-one in America wants to purchase a product made by a child or a teenager forced to work long hours under harsh conditions, or by any exploited worker stripped of his or her rights and paid starvation wages,'' he said. ''As a society, as an economy, we can do better than that.'' (END/IPS/fah/mk/97)