National campaign launched in Minnesota against sweatshops

Jessica Thompson

A coalition of human rights, religious, and labor organizations gathered at the Roseville Kohl’s department store Monday to protest the company’s use of sweatshops in Nicaragua.
The protest launches a national campaign against Kohl’s, which will include demonstrations in 15 cities. Kohl’s officials are looking into the allegations, although a spokesperson said the company will not get involved in labor negotiations.
The campaign’s focus is on the use of a Taiwanese-owned sweatshop called Chentex in the Las Mercedes Free Trade Zone in Managua, Nicaragua.
“Chentex is firing employees who are attempting to unionize and demand fair wages,” said Larry Weiss, coordinator for the Minnesota Fair Trade Commission.
The dismissals began last year when the workers requested an 8-cent pay increase for each pair of blue jeans produced. The request was immediately rejected, said Charles Kernaghan, director of the National Labor Committee for Human Rights, an independent group focused on workers issues.
The committee also discovered the recent use of sweatshops in Kathie Lee Gifford’s line of clothing.
While U.S. retailers are able to sell the jeans for $24 each, the average pay per pair is only 20 cents, Kernaghan said.
After failed pleas to the Nicaraguan Labor Ministry for mediation, the workers held a 50-minute work stoppage last April, said Zenayda Torres, former union leader at Chentex who is touring with the human rights coalition.
“We waited for a year for the wage increase that was promised to us,” Torres said. “Since the company flatly refused negotiations, we decided we had to pressure them.”
Chentex retaliated by “hiring thugs to terrorize the workers, putting up barbed wire and surveillance cameras around the factory, and firing over 500 union members to date,” Kernaghan said.
All 11 Chentex union leaders, including Torres, were fired and are facing criminal charges.
“(Chentex managers) told us that if we pulled the demand for reinstatement, they would drop the criminal suits against us,” Torres said.
Both Torres and fellow Chentex worker Angelica Perez, who was fired simply for associating with a union member, said they believe the union provided the only source of human rights in an otherwise degrading industry.
“When the union was active, (managers) did not hurt us. They allowed us sick leave, didn’t force overtime, didn’t yell at us to work faster and allowed us to use the bathrooms,” Perez said. “After the union left, we had no freedom. Those who complained were fired.”
After the union was disbanded, many Chentex workers were forced to work 60 to 70 hours per week, Weiss said.
Working overtime is common, as is physical and sexual harassment, Perez said. To make the situation worse, workers are earning wages that are far below subsistence levels, Weiss said.
Chentex’s owner, the Nien-Hsing Textiles Company, also produces blue jeans for major retailers including JC Penney, K-Mart, and Wal-Mart.
Kohl’s is being targeted partly because of its relatively small size, and because it was thought that “they might have more of a moral conscience than larger businesses like Wal-Mart,” Kernaghan said.
Susan Henderson, vice president of public relations at Kohl’s headquarters in Menomonee Falls, Wis., said the company has acknowledged and thanked the committee for its investigations on factory conditions.
“We take working condition violations very seriously,” Henderson said. She added that a group of investigators hired by Kohl’s recently returned from Nicaragua and are in the process of analyzing their findings, which include randomly selected employee interviews and record inspections.
“Our goal is to make sure that our business codes of conduct are being met,” Henderson said. “However, we cannot get involved in a labor negotiation between third-party employers and their employees. That is not our role.”
The Nicaraguan government has refused to help the sweatshop employees because the owner of Chentex has threatened to move production and a potential $100 million investment out of the country, Kernaghan said.
As the hemisphere’s second poorest nation, the country is greatly in need of the jobs provided by the sweatshops.
“The need for a job has made workers accept mistreatment,” Perez said. Chentex has had little difficulty replacing the more than 500 employees fired.
Meanwhile, union members have been blacklisted, Torres said.
The coalition will protest across the country over the next two weeks, pleading with Kohl’s to take immediate action. The goal is not only to ensure that Chentex reinstates the workers, but to negotiate better wages and conditions in the factories.
“The workers want Kohl’s to stay in Nicaragua, but we must negotiate a more humanitarian contract,” Kernaghan said. “Poverty, misery, and unemployment do not give Kohl’s a license to exploit people.”
Henderson insists that if inspections of the factories reveal any violations immediate corrective action will be taken.

Jessica Thompson welcomes comments at (612) 627-4070 x3232.