Behind that label: shining light on sweatshop labor

Pittsburgh Post Gazette |  By Anna Orso  | May, 17 2012 |  Share  | Source Article

After weeks of being bombarded with threatening phone calls for his work with a group exposing corporations for employing sweatshop labor, Charles Kernaghan ended up lying in his Manhattan apartment in 1988, bleeding from his chest.

He'd been stabbed by a large man who climbed through his window. The only words he said the attacker uttered were, "I'm here to kill you."

Now, more than 20 years later, Mr. Kernaghan has come to terms with the incident, saying the criticisms, threatening calls and stab wound were all worth it because he has been able to bring attention to the conditions that continue to affect workers around the world, often as they make goods to be sold in the U.S.

He's now the director of the Institute for Global Labour and Human Rights, tucked away in a back corner office in the United Steelworkers building Downtown. The institute recently released a report on conditions in sweatshops in Bangladesh.

"Yes, I've had to give a lot of sacrifices," the 64-year-old bearded Brooklyn native said. "But what I do is a privilege."

The institute -- formerly known as the National Labor Committee in Support of Human and Worker Rights in Central America -- has made its mark over the past 25 years, taking on corporations, drafting federal legislation and even making Kathie Lee Gifford cry on national television.

The organization, which operated on less than half a million dollars in 2010, switched names that same year, following its relocation from New York to Pittsburgh at the end of 2008. Mr. Kernaghan said rent payments in Manhattan were getting tough and the USW offered space. USW International President Leo Gerard sits on the institute's board, according to its 2010 IRS 990 filing.

Founded in 1981, the group advocates against the use of sweatshops in Third World countries. It has launched campaigns against the practices of U.S. product powerhouses such as Gap, Wal-Mart, Kohl's and Target.

The institute's most recent anti-sweatshop campaign -- which has produced two reports, one that was released last week -- takes on Australian and European clothing companies using sweatshops in Bangladesh where women are fired for requesting maternity leave and teenagers work more than 85 hours a week.

The workers make pennies an hour. The conditions are abhorrent, according to the group's research. And Mr. Kernaghan, a man who speaks with a fiery fervor, has seen it all.

"If our clothes could talk," he said, "they would be screaming."

His work in Third World countries began in the late 1980s when Mr. Kernaghan and his colleague Barbara Briggs, who still works with the institute as the assistant director, went south during several wars and crises in Central America to provide protection for workers there and advocate for peace in the region.

After violence subsided in 1990, the duo refocused their efforts to zero in on sweatshop labor, Ms. Briggs said.

They rallied collaborators from around the globe and settled on a mission to bring respect to workers' rights, especially in factories where the products being made were being shipped to the United States.

The first of the major campaigns came in 1992 when the group found that more than $1 billion in taxpayer money was being used by the U.S. Agency for International Development to fund the infrastructures of factories in Central America, as part of an effort to create jobs developing countries that the group argued supported cheap labor.

Mr. Kernaghan ran with the discovery. He contacted CBS' "60 Minutes" and teamed up with the popular news program to go undercover, catching U.S. officials on camera promoting the sweatshops.

"This defined the way we work: as undercover researchers," he said. "With this approach, we really can have an impact."

Since 1992 was a presidential election year, the exposé carried weight Mr. Kernaghan said he never expected. Following the airing of the "60 Minutes" program and extensive media coverage, Congress passed a law that fall that stipulated no U.S. dollars could be used on projects that violate internationally recognized workers' rights.

Then, in 1996, Mr. Kernaghan and his team turned their attention away from the government and onto Hollywood.

While on a trip to The Global Fashion plant in Choloma, Honduras, to compile research for their next report, Mr. Kernaghan and Ms. Briggs were slipped a Kathie Lee Gifford garment tag by a sweatshop worker. Ms. Briggs said the pair hardly knew who the celebrity was.

Conditions in the factory were far from acceptable. Mr. Kernaghan said the group witnessed 13-year-old children working 12 hours a day while dripping in sweat and choking on dust.

At the time, Ms. Gifford had made a name for herself for appearing on the hit daytime talk show, "Live with Regis and Kathie Lee." She had kicked off a successful clothing line with Wal-Mart -- a line Mr. Kernaghan was ready to expose as being produced by sweatshop labor.

Ms. Gifford's reputation took a hit after the report of the sweatshops and the conditions was made public, and she appeared on her show sobbing, initially claiming the report was false. But after another sweatshop was uncovered in Manhattan that also produced garments for the star's line, she conceded there were problems.

For months, Mr. Kernaghan and Ms. Briggs held news conferences and did interviews, and they brought in a young worker from Honduras to speak.

"She talked about what it was like to be so terrified and what it was like to be patted down when she entered work every morning," Ms. Briggs recalled, tearing up. "It was her life and it was simply her telling the truth."

One fellow anti-sweatshop activist praised the institute's work, but is concerned its alliance with the USW is distracting the group from its focus on international problems.

"My plan is to drive a truck into side of the Steelworkers Building and provide an escape route for them," said Kenneth Miller, co-founder of the Pittsburgh Anti-Sweatshop Community Alliance. "They need to focus on workers in other countries."

Moving forward, the institute, which has five employees, plans to continue to lobby for women's and workers' rights domestically and internationally.

"One of the largest social justice issues is getting control of this out-of-control condition," Mr. Kernaghan said. "And if we don't, then God help us."