Published on Friday, May 11, 2001 in the San Francisco Chronicle
Official Salvadoran Report Says Its Factories Are Brutal
Sweatshops make clothes for U.S. retailers
by Eric Brazil
Working conditions at factories in El Salvador that make apparel for some
of America's leading clothing firms are harsh, repressive and unsafe,
according to a Salvadoran government report.
The report was obtained by the National Labor Committee, a New York-based human rights advocacy organization, which said the study had been suppressed by the Salvadoran government for eight months.
Neither El Salvador's embassy in Washington nor its consulate in San Francisco responded to calls seeking comment.
The committee said, after conducting its own investigation of working conditions, that among the U.S. firms supplied by the factories it investigated is San Francisco-based The Gap.
The report by the Salvadoran Ministry of Labor said that forced overtime, substandard wages, excessive production quotas, abusive and unsafe working conditions, and an animus against labor unions prevail in the country's 229 "maquiladora" factories, which assemble garments for export, duty free.
The report spoke in general terms of conditions throughout the maquiladora industry. But the National Labor Committee focused its investigation on 11 factories that are suppliers for The Gap, Nike, Liz Claiborne and Kohl's.
At The Gap's headquarters yesterday, spokesman Jack Dougherty said the company was taken by surprise by the report. He declined to comment on its allegations. Nevertheless, he said, The Gap's internal monitoring program has brought about some improvement in working conditions in the Salvadoran factories that are among its suppliers.
The apparel-manufacturing industry, which operates in El Salvador's free trade zones, exported $1.6 billion worth of apparel to the United States in 2000. Clothing is the nation's No. 1 export product, four times the size of the next three leading exports combined -- coffee, sugar and shrimp. The clothing factories employ more than 80,000 Salvadorans.
According to the U.S. advocacy group, 100 copies were sent out from the Salvadoran Ministry of Labor to factory owners and several organizations. Furious factory owners protested to the government, and the report was recalled the next day. One copy, however, ended up in the hands of the National Labor Committee.
The committee is a nonprofit group that has championed workers' rights around the world. In organized labor circles, it is known as "Amnesty International for Workers," according to Sharon Cornu, spokeswoman for the California Labor Federation, AFL-CIO.
In 1996, the National Labor Committee made international headlines with a report that 13-year-old Honduran girls were working 13-hour shifts under armed guard for 31 cents an hour sewing pants for Kathie Lee Gifford and Wal Mart -- a disclosure that reduced Gifford to tears.
Committee investigators looked into four of the factories that supply The Gap, two of them financed by Taiwanese capital.
They found that the predominantly female workers at the factories face mandatory pregnancy tests, which are illegal under Salvadoran (and U.S.) law, were paid "11 1/2 cents for each $12.99 Gap T-shirt they sew," needed permission to drink water or use the bathroom and faced obligatory 12-hour shifts.
"Any attempt to organize (unions) met with mass firings," the committee's report said.
The group's executive director, Charles Kernaghan, said that committee investigators at one of the factories that supplies The Gap found water "where the bacterial level was 290 times greater than allowed under international standards. "
The Gap's Dougherty said that "for the past five years Gap's factory monitors have worked with independent monitors in El Salvador to try to help factory owners improve conditions for workers. Everyone agrees that more work needs to be done, but we believe we have been able to make a greater impact than companies who do not monitor factories regularly," he said.
The committee investigators found that The Gap's Code of Conduct, the company's guidelines for employee-company relations aimed at creating a safe, healthy workplace, had not been posted at its contracting factories, "nor has there ever been any explanation given to the workers regarding the content or purpose of the code."
Dougherty said that calls will have to be made at the factories named by the National Labor Committee before he is able to respond to the charges.
In a statement following the release of the report, Nike said that "we recognize that improvements in Nike partner factories is a continuous process, but it appears that Mr. Kernaghan rehashed old issues in an attempt to gain attention for his cause."
The company said that "when problems are identified in our partner factories, Nike takes the necessary steps to correct those issues" and that it "supports and encourages the efforts of those who want to work together to truly improve working conditions for workers in the world's factories."
Neither Liz Claiborne nor Kohl's could be reached for comment.
The Salvadoran Labor Ministry report offered a brutally frank critique of the ministry's own performance. It cited a widespread perception among workers that many labor inspectors are corrupt and said that there is an "urgent need for a leap in the quality of the work of the Ministry of Labor in its principal activities."
©2001 San Francisco Chronicle