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GAP Caught in Cover-Up, Loses All Credibility

October, 18 1995 Share

 

GAP Involved in Violating the Rights of Women and Minors

A Question: Who to believe: The GAP, or a dozen of El Salvador's most respected organizations?

The GAP says it treats its young workers well in El Salvador.

All three leading human rights organizations in El Salvador say that the GAP does not know what it is talking about. The teenaged women sewing GAP shirts suffered numerous abuses and the 56 cents an hour they earned is a starvation wage.

The GAP says it conducted a "very thorough" and "intensive" seven-month investigation in El Salvador, speaking with "human rights," "religious," "academic," and "government" leaders. The GAP concluded by stating: "Based on our investigation, we have determined with confidence that the Mandarin factory treats its workers well and meets our standards of fairness and decency." "Despite this intensive effort our investigation has not uncovered any significant evidence supporting the allegations or indicating that there has been any serious violations" of the rights of the women sewing GAP shirts.

Outraged by the GAP's "investigation," which in reality was a whitewash and a cover-up, leading women's and human rights organizations in El Salvador, along with Deputies chairing the Salvadoran Legislative Assembly's labor, women's and human rights committees; scholars from the Jesuit Central American University (UCA); labor attorneys and researchers—among them the International Labor Organization's researcher in El Salvador, and four labor federations wrote to the GAP explaining that the GAP was flat out wrong. These leading Salvadoran organizations write:

There exists more than sufficient evidence and readily available documentation to establish beyond a doubt that gross violations of women's and workers' rights took place at the Mandarin International plant in the San Marcos Free Trade Zone.

In an attempt to set the record straight, these organizations urge that a "truly independent and objective investigation" be immediately initiated.

One is left wondering who the GAP met with—for example, which human rights organizations—and how the GAP conducted its "intensive" investigation.

Anatomy of a Cover-up:

For the last several years the Mandarin International maquiladora factory located in El Salvador's San Marcos Free Trade Zone has produced clothing under contract for the GAP, and other U.S. companies including Eddie BauerJ.C. Penney,J. CrewLiz Claiborne and Casual Corner.

When the National Labor Committee publicly raised the issue of serious human rights violations existing at the Mandarin plant on a Canadian radio program, the GAP's first response was to threaten to sue the committee. The NLC let it be known that we would welcome such a suit, which would give us a chance to access company records and establish the facts.

GAP then switched tactics, and began distributing a corporate code of conduct—nicely printed, using treeless paper and soy-based ink—which, the GAP said, guaranteed the human rights of any worker anywhere in the world sewing clothing for the GAP. The GAP uses over 500 contractors in 50 countries worldwide.

The NLC then pointed out to the GAP that while their code of conduct might look right and read well, the only problem was that no worker in Central America or the Caribbean had ever heard, let alone seen the GAP code. When we asked the workers at the Mandarin plant if they were aware of the GAP corporate code of conduct, they stared at us as if we were from another planet. No, the women maquiladora workers had never heard of such a thing. When we explained that the GAP code of conduct guaranteed their rights, the women said, "our code is the screw driver and being put out in the sun." When the Mandarin managers get angry, "they hit us on the head with the handle of a screw driver or they order us outside to sweep under the burning sun for a day, or for several days."

The GAP admitted to the NLC that they had forgotten—an "inadvertent slip"—to translate their code of conduct into Spanish. The "inadvertent slip" lasted several years.

In a meeting with the GAP in early August, Mr. Stanley Raggio, Executive Vice President, told the NLC that he had personally investigated the Mandarin plant, but could find nothing wrong, no violations. When asked how he conducted his investigation, Mr. Raggio replied that when he visited the plant, Mandarin's manager had wanted to accompany him on a tour of the shop floor. Mr. Raggio told him no, this was something he had to do alone. Se he walked out onto the shop floor—a gringo, the executive vice president of one of the largest apparel companies in the world, with $4 billion in annual sales—and interviewed the teenaged women sitting at their sewing machines, who looked up at him and said that everything was "fine."

The NLC pointed out that that sort of "investigation" wouldn't work in Switzerland, let alone in a maquiladora plant in El Salvador which is patrolled by armed guards and company thugs. The Chief of Personnel at the Mandarin plant is a former Salvadoran Army Colonel, and the San Marcos Free Trade Zone is owned by ex-colonel Mario Guerrero.

Mr. Raggio then asked for help—that the NLC provide "details, details" to the GAP concerning the violations. The NLC had already released two lengthy reports on Mandarin, but we explained to Mr. Raggio that the GAP would have all the details it wanted if it would accompany the National Labor Committee on a joint mission to El Salvador to investigate conditions at the Mandarin plant. We told Mr. Raggio that we could set up a meeting between him and the fired workers; that we could visit the workers in their homes to see how they lived; and that we could speak to a wide range of human rights organizations like the Archdiocese human rights office, Tutela Legal, the Human Rights Ombuds Office, women's groups, labor attorneys, academics, unions, among others.

We urged the GAP to agree to this joint independent investigation. They refused.

According to the GAP, since March they have been involved in their own "intensive" and "very thorough" investigation of conditions at Mandarin—visiting El Salvador several times and speaking with a wide range of workers, religious, academic and human rights leaders, and government officials.

Based on this investigation, the GAP concludes: "Despite this intensive effort our investigation has not uncovered any significant evidence supporting the allegations or indicating that there has been any serious violations of our sourcing guidelines." In short, there never were any human rights violations of the Mandarin workers. So, "Based on our investigation we have determined with confidence that the Mandarin factory treats its workers well and meets our standards of fairness and decency."

This was a whitewash, a cover-up, plain and simple. The GAP's mistake was to put it in black and white on paper.

The GAP had a strategy. It was counting on El Salvador being a poor third world country, a "soft-society," where documents are not kept, where facts fall through the cracks, where dates are not recorded. Even more promising for the GAP was the extreme poverty of the Salvadoran workers who sewed GAP shirts for 56 cents an hour. Workers in El Salvador do not have phones. Many do not even have street numbers, their addresses being listed as such and such a "colonia." The GAP was counting on the fact that the fired workers could not be found, that most of them would have dispersed to other areas in search of work.

The GAP strategy rested upon sowing confusion, that one group of workers would say one thing while another group would say something else; that the union would say this while the government said that and the plant management said something different again. In the end, you cannot prove anything—so hoped the GAP.

The GAP's strategy was reasonable, and it almost succeeded. A lot was at stake. The GAP knew that if it agreed to a truly independent joint investigation with the National Labor Committee, then that very step would confirm that the company could not adequately monitor itself. As things stood, the GAP, and the other companies, wrote the rules—their corporate codes of conduct—and then policed themselves; that is, monitored themselves. The GAP wanted to defend that absolute corporate prerogative.

The GAP gambled, but it has now lost big time.

During several trips in April, May, September and October, the NLC was able to contact the workers illegally fired from Mandarin for attempting to defend their basic rights. We had several meetings with dozens of workers at a time. We always heard the same story of forced overtime, sometimes to 4:00 a.m. (followed by sleeping on the floor with the rats), of many minors illegally forced to work these same long hours, of the beatings, of not being allowed to use the bathroom or drink water, of the extreme heat in the plant, of the women fainting, of the starvation wages on which even then they were frequently cheated and shortchanged, of being prohibited from access to health care, and on and on.

A major blow came to the GAP when the NLC discovered that there were many extremely credible organizations in El Salvador who had themselves investigated the violations at the Mandarin plant, among them the Salvadoran government's own Human Rights Office as well as the Archdiocese of San Salvador's human rights office—Tutela Legal.

Then came Bob Herbert's powerful articles in the New York Times, one on October 9, another on Friday, October 13. It took Bob Herbert one week in El Salvador to find out what several teams of GAP investigators could not discover in seven months.

The GAP says no one was illegally fired from Mandarin. The National Labor Committee has the signed list of 332 women fired from Mandarin for daring to defend their rights by organizing a union.

These fired women—many of them now blacklisted—say they will meet with the GAP, but only when the cover-up is over and they can tell their stories to an independent team of investigators.

The GAP says it pays good wages. The National Labor Committee can prove that the 56 to 69 cent-an-hour wages that the women earn for sewing expensive GAP shirts provide less than 28 percent of what it costs the average poor family to just survive.

The National Labor Committee has photographed the homes of GAP workers, to show what a wage of 56 cents an hour provides—in many cases no more than a hut with a dirt floor and mud and cardboard for walls.

The GAP says there were no minors employed at Mandarin. This is another lie. The National Labor Committee contacted several of the minors and their parents, who told us of the forced overtime and long hours at Mandarin. It was not uncommon for the minors to work seven days a week. Once or twice a week the work shift stretched to 18 hours.

The GAP says there are no armed guards in the San Marcos Free Trade Zone or in Mandarin. In just one morning, the National Labor Committee photographed several guards armed with shotguns.

Mandarin/GAP says Colonel Amaya no longer works at Mandarin. The National Labor Committee photographed Colonel Amaya guarding the back entrance to the Mandarin plant.

The GAP has Lost All Credibility

At this point, the GAP has lost all credibility. If for years, the GAP can produce in a plant like Mandarin in El Salvador—which is only a two-hour flight from Miami—and then in broad daylight attempt to cover up a history of human rights violations by Mandarin, how can we ever trust what the GAP tells us about its manufacturing operations in China or Indonesia? Why should we believe them?

 Key players involved in the GAP investigation/cover-up

Stanley P. Raggio
Senior Vice President
Sourcing and Logistics
The GAP, Inc.
900 Cherry Avenue
San Bruno, CA 94066

Tel: 415-952-4400
Fax: 415-952-4069

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Betsy Allen
Senior Attorney
The GAP, Inc.
900 Cherry Avenue
San Bruno, CA 94066

Tel: 415-952-4794
Fax: 415-952-4069

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Elliot Schrage, Professor
Columbia University
Graduate School of Business
622 Uris Hall
3022 Broadway
New York, NY 10027

Tel: 212-854-3471

NOTE: While participating in the GAP investigation in late August, Mr. Schrage stated that he was a human rights consultant associated with the following law firm:

Clark and Weinstock, Inc.
52 Vanderbilt Avenue
New York, NY 10017

Tel: 212-953-2550