Thanks to the dedicated efforts of watchdog groups, investigative reporters, and factory inspectors worldwide, worker abuses that might have continued unnoticed have been exposed and corrected or punished. Consolidating the efforts of these diligent sources, we've gone around the world with eight major players in America's retail landscape, looking at recent high-profile sweatshop abuses in their factories, and we've summarized their involvement in the accompanying chart.
While the examples below represent only a fraction of the sweatshop abuses perpetuated around the globe, they illustrate the violations that too often occur when corporations demand lower prices and faster production from their subcontractors.
One of the most powerful things you can do as a consumer is to avoid companies with poor human rights records and shop with responsible companies who go the extra mile to treat their workers with dignity and give them a living wage.
Green America's Retailer Scorecard
Documented Sweatshop Abuse
WINS Facilities: The US Department of Labor urged California's Labor Commissioner in October 2002 to help provide unpaid wages to more than 200 garment workers who were owed almost $1 million. The workers (mostly Chinese immigrant women) worked for months without pay at three San Francisco factories known as the Wins facilities. After labor violations at the factories were uncovered in 2001, proceeds from Wins shipments were directed into a fund designated for paying workers; now that Wins has filed for bankruptcy, creditors are attempting to claim those funds instead. Wins made clothing for customers that included Sears, Wal-Mart, Kmart, and J.C. Penney. [Sources: San Francisco Chronicle, Sweatshop Watch]
Tarrant: The nonprofit Sweatshop Watch reported in March of 2004 that the remaining 500 workers at the Tarrant Apparel Group's factory in Ajalpan, Mexico, were fired after trying to organize a union. The mass firing brought to 5,000 the number of Tarrant layoffs in Mexico since union organizing began in June 2003. Workers allege working 24-hour shifts for Tarrant, without overtime pay or the profit-sharing bonuses mandated under Mexican law. Tarrant denies the charges and says losing contracts to China forced the layoffs. Wal-Mart and Kmart sourced from Tarrant before the first round of firings. Federated inked a deal with Tarrant in April 2004 to begin production on a line of clothing called "American Rag" to be sold at Macy's this fall. [Sources: Sweatshop Watch, Orange County Weekly, Women's Wear Daily]
Leader Garment Factory: The National Labor Committee (NLC) in March 2001 exposed a suppressed El Salvador government report that documents worker abuses at the Leader Garment Factory, where workers said they were locked in the factory compound, were subjected to mandatory pregnancy tests, had no right to organize, and were paid less than one-third the cost of living. At the time of the report, Kohl's, Sears, and Target sourced from Leader Garments. [Source: NLC]
Confecciones Ninos: In December 2003, the nonprofit Human Rights Watch reported that US retailers J.C. Penney, Wal-Mart, and Kmart did business with the Confecciones Ninos factory before it closed in March 2002. Workers at the plant reported being denied overtime wages, drinking water, bathroom visits, and sick days, in addition to being threatened with termination for union activity. [Sources: Human Rights Watch, The Economist]
Daewoosa: Lee Kil-Soo, owner of the Daewoosa factory in American Samoa, was convicted in February 2003 of human trafficking for illegally confining workers in "involuntary servitude," holding their passports, and threatening deportation in retaliation for any acts of non-compliance. A US Department of Labor (DOL) investigation reported that workers at Daewoosa were often beaten, deprived of food, and forced to work without pay. Clothing produced by the Daewoosa factory was sold with the "Made in the USA" label, because American Samoa is a US territory. Before Mr. Lee's arrest and the closing of the factory, Daewoosa supplied clothing to J.C. Penney, Kohl's, Sears, Target, and Wal-Mart. According to the Manchester Guardian Weekly, only J.C. Penney has paid back wages to the Daewoosa workers. [Sources: DOL, Manchester Guardian Weekly, Washington Post]
Chentex: In April 2001, Nicaraguan court ordered Chentex—a Taiwanese-owned maquila that was making jeans for Kohl's, J.C. Penney, Kmart, and Wal-Mart—to rehire nine illegally fired union leaders. Chentex had been targeted by the National Labor Committee for its union-busting activity, while workers earned just 18 cents for each $24 pair of pants they sewed. [Source: National Labor Committee]
Anvil Ensembles: A July 2003 investigation by the Philippine Daily Inquirer uncovered sweatshop abuses by Anvil Ensembles, a producer of baby clothes. The Inquirer exposed instances of management giving workers amphetamines to keep them awake for 48- and 72-hour shifts, failing to pay minimum wages, and providing substandard latrines. J.C. Penney and Sears both subcontracted with Anvil as of July 2003. [Source: Philippine Daily Inquirer]
Burma: The Financial Times of London reported in April 2003 that Burmese clothing exports to the US dropped 27 percent between 2001 and 2002. Many retailers started pulling out of Burma even earlier than that, in recognition of the widespread human rights violations by the country's ruling military junta, and as of July 2003, the US Congress made it illegal to import garments from Burma into the United States. Some companies, however, were more resistant than others to pulling their business from the country. Federated Department Stores, for example, did not announce it would pull its business from Burma until August 2002, and May's Department Stores waited until the very late date of May 2003. [Sources: Financial Times, Free Burma Coalition]
US Commonwealth of Saipan: In September 2002, 26 major retail apparel companies settled a lawsuit over working conditions on the island of Saipan, a US commonwealth. The settlement included a $20 million fund to pay back wages to workers and to create a system for monitoring factories for labor abuses. The 1999 class-action suit was filed by Global Exchange; Sweatshop Watch; the Asian Law Caucus; and the Union of Needletrades, Industrial, and Textile Employees in response to what plaintiffs described as modern-day indentured servitude. Saipan workers allegedly paid "recruitment fees" of up to $5,000 to land factory jobs, then struggled to pay it back while receiving low wages that were further reduced by deductions for housing and food. Wal-Mart, Target, J.C. Penney, and May's were among the companies that settled the suit in 2002. Sears settled in 1999, when the suit was first filed. [Source: Global Exchange]