NEAL CONAN, host:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.
Crucifixes, lingerie and Christmas ornaments - only a few of the most recent products to be entangled in allegations that they were manufactured with sweatshop labor. Sweatshop scandals are nothing new - charges that the American garment industry in particular tolerates poor working conditions, low pay, child labor and long hours in manufacturing facilities in India, China or even Los Angeles.
But what's a shopper to do? Even if you look at the fine print on the tags before you buy a sweater or a pair of jeans, can you really tell what is and what isn't made in a sweatshop?
Later in the program, the remarkable story of Kevin Everett. The pro football player paralyzed on the field, now walking three months later.
But first, sweatshops. If you want to know more about how to shop sweatshop-free, give us a call. Our number is 800-989-8255; e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also join the conversation on our blog; that's at npr.org/blogofthenation.
Dana Thomas is Newsweek's cultural correspondent and author of "Deluxe: How Luxury Lost Its Luster." She joins us from a studio in Paris; nice to have you on TALK OF THE NATION.
Ms. DANA THOMAS (Cultural Correspondent, Newsweek; Author, "Deluxe: How Luxury Lost Its Luster"): Thanks for having me.
CONAN: So let's get right to it. Can you tell if your clothing was made in a sweatshop?
Ms. THOMAS: Well, it's hard to say now whether something is made in a sweatshop or not because that's the result of globalization. We send it - we have things from far, far away, and we don't know who's making them or where they're being made. Even the labels today won't guarantee where something is made.
It may say it's made - it may read that it's made in Italy, but, in fact, it could have been made in China and the handle was attached in Italy or the buttons were sewed on in Italy, and, therefore, gets a made-in-Italy label. Or even - there are sweatshops in Italy now that are manned by Chinese immigrants or even illegal aliens who are paid a fraction of what Italian workers earn. Italian workers earn about $18 - $19 an hour, but the Chinese who work in these factories earn $2 and $3 an hour.
CONAN: And now, what if it's…
Ms. THOMAS: So even made in Italy doesn't guarantee that it's not a sweatshop.
CONAN: Well, what if it says made in the USA?
Ms. THOMAS: Well, made in the USA probably means it's okay because we have very strict rules, but many countries don't have such strict rules.
CONAN: What if it says designed in Italy? Should that be a tip off?
Ms. THOMAS: That should definitely be a tip off that it was not made in Italy for if it were made in Italy, it would say made in Italy. And chances are it was made in the developing nation - China, Bangladesh, Mexico, Vietnam, Cambodia. The - it's - you know, it one of the problems that's arisen from our constant hunger for getting better prices and nonstop consumerism, you know, and globalization.
Back in the old days, we used to buy local. We knew our dressmaker. We went to our dressmaker or our tailor. We had the suit or the dress made on us. They sewed it on the sewing machines in the back, and, you know, and you knew these people. They were your friends; they were your neighbors. But now, we want to save money, we want to buy more, and we want - and the business owners want to make bigger profits. And so they farm out the production to the cheapest labor possible, and to get cheap labor, you don't pay your workers very much and they have to work a lot.
CONAN: As you say in the old days, a lot of stuff was made locally, but it's certainly not DKNJ or DKDC and it's probably not even DKNY.
Ms. LEVELLE: That's right. Most major brands do not produce locally anymore. I mean, you can tell it just by reading the labels. It say made in China, made in Hong Kong on a lot of labels. America has much stricter labeling rules than Europe for example. So if it says it was made in Italy, chances are it was made in Italy if you buy it in the United States; that's not the case if you buy it in Europe. If it says it was - but that's why you'll see - you have to look, but you'll see perhaps on a Ralph Lauren sweater or a Calvin Klein sweater that it was made in China or made in Hong Kong - Diane von Furstenberg graph dresses made in China. They have to say it when they're sold in the United States.
CONAN: Our number is 800-989-8255 if you'd like to join the conversation, 800-989-TALK; e-mail is email@example.com.
Laura(ph) is on the line with us. Laura with from Greensboro in North Carolina, is that right?
LAURA (Caller): Yes, it is.
CONAN: Go ahead, please.
LAURA: Yes, I'm calling - I'm trying to figure out when - it's great to buy locally, but when, you know, especially Christmas time when shopping sales and buying name brands. What name brands are, I guess, notorious for sweatshop labor? And what is the recommended way of discovering exactly where something is from and if where it's made is notorious for sweatshop labor?
CONAN: Dana Thomas, are some brands reliable and others questionable?
Ms. THOMAS: Well, it's really hard to say because they switch factories regularly, and, of course, when they're caught, then they go clean. Remember the big saga with - I think it was Nike a few years ago. And they were told that - we learned that children were making the running shoes.
Ms. THOMAS: Or the Kathie Lee Gifford saga that happened a few years as well -the scandal of also sweatshop work. The problem is that it…
CONAN: In Central America I think that was, yeah.
Ms. THOMAS: Yeah, it's just so far away that we don't know and you'll never know. That's point, you'll never know. It - where our goods are made today is completely anonymous to the consumer who made and made in doesn't mean anything. What we need to ask today is how it is made.
And it sort of remind - it's - I find it be a parallel with the food business. Remember before, there was very little labeling on food packaging. And I remember when I worked at the Washington Post, it was a campaign of one of my collogues to get the FDA to put those labels on that everyone can read now without reading glasses that tells you exactly what's gone into the product.
But still, you go to Whole Foods and you see - you're buying organic, but you don't where those raspberries are - how they were grown when they were growing three quarters of the world around - away around the world or the green beans that come from Kenya. You don't know the man who picked them. And so that's one of the reasons we now shop at farmer's markets, and the farmer's markets are thriving around the country.
And I think the same is right for clothing and for garments and for, you know, just about anything. We don't know where things are manufactured anymore; we don't know the workers who work in the factories because we don't have those factories in our towns anymore. And so I think, you know, as long as we consume global products, we will have the chance of consuming things that came from sweatshops, and we'll never know.
CONAN: Laura, thanks very much for the call.
Joining us now is Dan Viederman. He runs a company called the Verite. Manufacturers hire his company to inspect factories run by their suppliers. He's in the studio at member station WBUR in Boston. Dan Viederman, thanks very much for joining us today.
Mr. DAN VIEDERMAN (Executive Director, Verite): My pleasure. Thanks.
CONAN: And so, when you're hired by the Gap and there was recently a controversy about their factories in India, do you immediately get on a plane for Mumbai and find out what's going on?
Mr. VIEDERMAN: Mercifully, no. We have people all over the world who are doing the - what we call social audits that are part and parcel of the work that we do. So the transparency that we provide to companies, that is the ability of the company to understand what's happening in a supply chain, comes from the work that we do through local, non-governmental organizations.
We ourselves are not a for-profit company. We're a non-governmental organization or a non-profit, and we work with others all over the world to help bring an understanding of the working conditions under which things are being produced to the companies.
Not yet - I think this is a, you know, it's a vital piece of the puzzle that's yet to be placed, not yet to the consumers. So it's very valuable to be able to talk about how consumers themselves can begin to understand and educate themselves about what companies are doing.
CONAN: Well, what do you look for when - your agents, what do they look for when they go to a factory that's in China or India or, for that matter, any - almost anywhere - Malaysia.
Mr. VIEDERMAN: Indeed, and we do work globally, in Latin America as well, really, wherever consumer products are being made. The way to think about this so-called social audit is that it's essentially a window into the workplace, and we think about it in terms of garments and factories and shoes. We should also think about it - about the workplace as places where computers are being assembled, as places where food is being grown - coffee and coco - and really any manner of things that ends up either on our table, on our shelves or in our stores. The window that we are looking through is essentially the frame for the window, if you will, is the company's commitment to operate according to some level of ethical considerations.
So the company has, generally, a voluntary code of conduct, which - in which it makes a commitment that it won't use children, for example, to make things. It won't use forced labor; it won't engage slave labor; it'll pay people what they deserve to be paid; it will give them a safe and healthy workplace.
But then, like any window, whether or not you actually see problems depends on a variety of different things. It depends on when you are looking for example. If you're looking at a toy factory in southern China in the month leading up to the Christmas rush, you're going to see a lot of people working there, and they're probably going to be working a lot of long hours. If you look at that same factory, if you look at an agricultural workplace, a farmer plantation not during the harvest season, you're not going to see as many people. And so the timing of when we look affects quite significantly what we find.
And then another distinguishing characteristic about what we find and what we're looking for is, really, the question of how we're looking for these things. We, as a non-profit, as an NGO, and all the NGOs in this segment -those of us who are practically on the ground trying to explore conditions within four companies are making sure that we talk to workers themselves. And when we talk to workers, we're looking for some of the issues that are harder to find. We're looking for whether or not a woman worker has been harassed by a supervisor, whether there's been any physical abuse on the line as a way of supervision as it's so-called or discipline, whether workers are being paid, what they're intended to be paid, whether any worker has been fired for trying to join a trade union.
The only way you got that kind of information actually is by talking to workers themselves and talking to workers in such a way that you don't put them at risk for divulging the information. So there's lots of companies out there that are currently looking for this sort of information. Very few of them are spending the effort and the resources to really look for the information the way that gives them a good picture of what's really happening in the facility.
And then I would say - just add that in addition to talking to workers, we'll talk to management and look at records and payroll records and wander through the factory looking for locked exit doors and open containers of hazardous materials and textile clippings next to an open flame or a boiler, so there's a physical walk through as well. And all of those pieces of information are ultimately downloaded and gathered together and analyzed to such that we provide the companies with A good sense of what's actually happening.
CONAN: Hmm. And obviously, you need people who are well versed in the local language, people who know the conditions, and that sort of thing, but - well, we just have a few seconds left in this segment - But, as you know, there have been complaints that a lot of these inspections - maybe not yours - but people call in advance, we're coming Tuesday.
Mr. VIEDERMAN: Absolutely. There's those complaints, there's falsification of records, and, again, the way that we get around that is that we make sure that we talk to workers as well. It's less likely that the workers are going to be part of the subterfuge, if you will. And - I mean, for a consumer to understand the intricacies of all these audits is very difficult, but, certainly, that's one of the major concerns.
CONAN: With so may of us doing holiday shopping, we're talking today about how you might be able to tell if what you're buying was made in a sweatshop. More of your calls in a moment and an argument that monitoring is not the answer.
The phone number - 800-989-8255. E-mail us - firstname.lastname@example.org.
I'm Neal Conan. Stay with us. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
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CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.
In a few minutes, we'll talk about the incredible story of Kevin Everett. He's the NFL football player who was told he might never walk again and refused to believe it. More on that a little bit later.
Right now, back to our conversation about sweatshops and how you might be able to tell if that sweater or the pair of shoes you have, your iron(ph) was made in a sweatshop - if you really can tell.
Dana Thomas is with us - Newsweek cultural correspondent and author of "Deluxe: How Luxury Lost its Luster."
If you'd like to know more about how to shop sweatshop-free, give us a call 800-998-8255, 800-989-Talk; e-mail is email@example.com. And you can read whatever listeners have to say at our blog at npr.org/blogofthenation .
Also with us, Dan Vierderman, his company does factory inspections around the world fro big name companies such as Levi's, Gap and Timberland;.that's the Verite, an independent company.
And I wanted to go to an e-mail. This is from Connor(ph) in St. Paul Minnesota. Your guest stated that made in the USA label probably means it's okay because we have strict standards. However, this completely discounts the human rights abuses occurring in the northern Marianas Islands, which are allowed to use the made in the USA label. I'd like to know how your guest would respond to that.
And, I think, Dana Thomas, that's to you.
Ms. THOMAS: Well, it's true. There are little - there are always loopholes, aren't there? And, in fact, when I was in Mauritius, for example, Mauritius is off the Coast of Madagascar. It's in a small French island in the Indian Ocean. I visited several factories there and they were spic-and-span and just beautiful. There were two kinds of workers - the local workers and then what they call expat workers who were Chinese girls who come in for two or three years on a visa - and there they're simply to work.
And when I walked through the factory, they were dozing on their machines during coffee break while the local women were chatting away, and as soon as the break was over, they sat up and worked again because they were the ones who worked at night, and they were the ones who worked at weekends and they were the ones who did double shifts because they just need to earn money to send home. And their sole purpose for being there was working.
Now the man who took me around said that they had lost some manufacturing to Madagascar recently because Madagascar had become one of the cheaper places in the world to produce in that part of the world, sort of like Cambodia and Vietnam are now to China, even cheaper than China.
But the problem was that that companies would go and visit to see how the factories were doing and found that the fire exits had been closed or that they were employing children or that, you know, it was all sweatshop conditions and that's why they were getting cheaper labor, but it was American companies like Gap, and they said we can't produce this way. We - if anyone ever found out, we would be slaughtered in the press. So they pulled out of their new manufacturing out of Madagascar and Madagascar's burgeoning manufacturing center slowly, you know, petered out or quickly petered out because the big companies were pulling out because they were sweatshops.
So, you know, there are some abuses, but as long as there are watchdog companies or the companies themselves are watching simply because they're worried about bad PR, if that's what it takes to get them to do it, then we have a better chance at not having sweatshop-produced products.
CONAN: Dan Viederman, let me ask you about that. There was a case recently about the Gap, which is one of the companies that you work for - your company works for, and that was that a factory they were using in India, I think, was accused of using child labor and the people at the Gap said, well, we had no way to know that this was going on. Is that accurate - they had no way to know?
Mr. VIEDERMAN: I think any of these instances that come up where they devote a tremendous amount of resources in one direction they would be able to find that information most likely. I think it's - we're dealing in the efforts by companies always with a balancing act, balancing the resources they put into investigation, balancing the strength of their commitment to social responsibility with the strength of their commitment to low prices.
There's a whole range of things that have to be and generally are brought into a conversation about whether or not the company is going to source in the location. Fact is, by sourcing in India, you put yourself at some risk of having child labor in your supply chain. I think the Gap responded very effectively, as far as I could tell, in that they didn't deny it. They didn't go underground and they, in fact, committed to treating these children very well.
I think that, increasingly, is the hallmark of the distinction between a company that sort of has a respectable approach to sweatshop issues and those that don't. That is, how do they respond when they are exposed? How do they take responsibility and how do they commit to the public, to their consumers, to their shareholders, to activist organizations, to journalists, to everybody? How do they commit that they're going to actually solve the problems?
So in that sense, you know, I think the Gap acquitted itself reasonably well after the information were brought to its attention. It is a surprise that they ended up - they are not aware of the fact that they had children.
CONAN: Yeah, and the people noted that they didn't seem to have any problems keeping track of their inventory. They just didn't know it was being manufactured by children.
So, we've heard how the big companies monitor factories, but there are questions, as you've just heard, about the factories.
Charles Kernaghan is director of the National Labor Committee, a human rights organization that tracks labor conditions in the developing world. He's with us today from NPR's bureau in New York; nice to have you on the program.
Mr. CHARLES KERNAGHAN (Director, National Labor Committee): Good to be here.
CONAN: So is monitoring generally effective, do you think?
Mr. KERNAGHAN: No, I don't think so. I don't think you can monitor your way out of the global sweatshop economy. Most American people don't realize that the corporations have demanded all sorts of enforceable laws to protect their corporate trademarks, their labels. You know, Mickey Mouse is protected; the (unintelligible) is protected; Barbie Doll is protected. If you imitate these garments, these products in your court, you're going to jail. You're going to pay fines for the rest of your life. They'll put you out of business.
So companies have demanded laws to protect their trademarks, which are backed up by enforceable sanctions - and stiff sanctions. But when we say to the companies, we understand that your label needs to be protected, but can't we also legally protect the rights of the 6-year-old girl in Bangladesh who made this garment?. The companies essentially say, no, that would be an impediment to free trade. So the American people really don't know this - they're unaware of it - but we're living in a society and an economy where the product is protected, the label is protected, but not the human being who makes it. So under these circumstances, you can't monitor your way out of the - these conditions.
We're looking at a factory in Jordan right now today. Colt(ph) Classic - a big factory, 3,000 workers, made clothing for Gap, made clothing for Wal-Mart. The workers are working seven days a week, 12 and a half to 14 hours a day. They're cheated of at least half their wages. They are slapped; they are hit if they fall behind their production goals. Two women were raped in the factory. These are guest workers who came in to Jordan from Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, India, Nepal - 3,000 of them. Guest workers and two young Sri Lankan women were raped; after they were raped, they were forcibly deported back to Sri Lanka.
So, you know, the idea that you could monitor these factories. They're in these countries because there's lax labor law enforcement. There's no union. They can pay - you know, in China, you can pay 50 to 60 cents an hour; force people to work seven days a week, a 72-hour workweek would be minimum; labor law enforcement on the part of the government is weak or non-existent. So they're not there as religious organizations to help develop these countries and help develop poor people. They're there because they can avoid labor laws.
CONAN: And what…
Mr. KERNAGHAN: So these are happening all over the world.
CONAN: Here's an e-mail on this point from Bruce(ph) in Littleton, Massachusetts. Too many use the term sweatshop generically. People in China and other developing nations are grateful to be earning two to $3 an hour.
Mr. KERNAGHAN: Well, they're not earning two to $3 an hour. In China, the minimum wage in most places is 55 cents to 60 cents an hour and, often, workers are cheated of that wage. They have no rights; there's no independent unions; there's no freedom of the press. We're not saying that workers in a developing world to a living under really crushing circumstances of poverty. We're not saying they don't want these jobs, they do want the jobs very badly and they're grateful for the work. All the workers want to be is treated like human beings. They might not even know the laws of the country. They may not be educated. They might not know the clothings even come to the United States, but they know they shouldn't be beaten, they know they shouldn't be raped, they know they shouldn't be cheated of their wages, they know they should be treated like human beings. So all they're asking is to treat them with respect, and every company could do that if they respected the local labor laws of the countries within which they produce along with the core, United Nations, internationally recognized worker rights standards of freedom of association, freedom to organize, no child labor, no forced labor.
Frankly, there's legislation introduced in the Senate and the House, which will deal with this issue, which is very exciting.
CONAN: All right. Well, let's talk about that a little bit later, but let me just turn back to Dan Veiderman and also to Dana Thomas. Charles Kernagahn is describing a situation, which he's, from his description, fundamentally corrupt, where the abuses are more the rule than the exception. Is he right or are there - is this a generally well-functioning system with some bad examples, some abusive cases? Dana Thomas, what do you think?
Ms. THOMAS: Well, in fact, it all echoes about a hundred years ago in America during the industrial revolution and the sweatshops we had in New York, Chicago and other major cities in the United States. And, you know, the worker - the employers, the companies were treating the workers very badly until there was outrage, there was publicity, there was, you know, documentation of this and, therefore, pressured for Congress to pass laws for workers' rights.
And so now, here we are, a hundred years later with globalization, which is industrialization around the world in places where, not 20 years, they were agricultural in small community countries. And it says many of the same companies that, a hundred years ago, were doing this. And they're doing it again for the same reasons - profits for shareholders. And so they've now sought out those rules, those places where they can - they don't have to pay attention to the rules that they had in the United States. That's why labor got so expensive in the United States, so that's why labor got so expensive in Europe - because there are all these rules.
And so as long as we support these companies and we keep asking for lower-priced goods and seeking out saving, saving, savings, and they want to make more profit, profit, profit, we're always going to have somebody being exploited along the way who's making them on for nothing.
Ms. THOMAS: Now, sure, we said that, you know, remember, a hundred years ago, we said those poor people but they're so happy that they've got a job because they're able to at least eat and, otherwise, they would have been homeless and starving. But they were treated badly, and that's no reason to pay - to have sweatshops.
Ms. THOMAS: You can't reason yourself out of it.
CONAN: Dan Viederman, are there occasional abuses or is there a systemic exploitation in your experience?
Mr. VIEDERMAN: I would say much closer to systemic exploitation. I think the important distinction to make, particularly if we're talking about - to consumers about whether they themselves can do, is that conditions aren't always exploited as in all situations equally across the globe. The problems in China relate to most largely to health and safety, the inability to join labor unions, the unpayment of overtime, incredibly long working hours - those situations aren't necessarily matched in exactly the same manifestation and, in fact, in the Philippines, for example.
So it's important, I think, to distinguish between what the specific problems are, what the specific risks are, and what the specific resources are available to a particular company or a worker by country. So Charlie(ph) is absolutely right, there are abuses almost everywhere, and I think if the one thing consumers take away from this conversation is that they're enmeshed in an economic system that produces goods for their consumption that are produced under, at best, problematic conditions if they are produced in developing countries; that's a very important lesson.
I think, though, I want to make sure that we don't leave people quite so hopeless that it's all terrible. Clearly, there is - there are companies that are trying to explore ways to moderate the worst impacts of their sourcing even to improve conditions in general in facilities. And there are anecdotal arguments and anecdotal instances where this is taking place.
So I think we have to - one of the things we have to do in addition to being very clear-eyed about the nature of conditions overseas is recognize and reflect on the steps that companies can take that are going to - result in more positive working conditions. And one of them, without a doubt, is looking at their own business practices, looking at their own decisions, their own ability to integrate social responsibility goals, which they all have, because they have codes of conduct, with their procurement and their buying goals. Generally, what happens in companies is that one person goes to the factory to buy and to negotiate the price and make sure it's as low as possible and the other person comes in and says, hey, by the way, you make sure you pay all the workers. And these two things are generally, mutually incompatible. And so we want to look at companies, and consumers ought to try and investigate companies that are, at least, admitting that that's a concern.
CONAN: Dan Viederman of Verite, also with us, Dana Thomas of Newsweek magazine who's been following these issues for years, and Charles Kernaghan, director of the National Labor Committee.
You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
And let's go to Judith(ph). Judith's with us from Chico, California.
JUDITH (Caller): Yes. I'm sitting here with Coop America's National Green Pages, and they are an organization that claims that they screen. A lot of these are fair-trade products. Their concern is social justice as well as a green environment. And they have on their Web site a link that you can go to responsible shopper that can tell you about products and companies. And I'd like to know if any of your guests are familiar with this organization and the work they do.
CONAN: Anybody familiar with this organization?
Mr. VIEDERMAN: Absolutely. The're a…
CONAN: Dan Viederman, go ahead. Yeah.
Mr. VIEDERMAN: …well respected national organization. And one of the things they do is gather information about companies and present it to their members and to the consuming public in general. I think one of the very valuable lessons they - or services they provide is to emphasize some of the smaller purveyors of goods and garments. We focus a lot in these conversations on the GAPs of the world and the Levi's and the major - and the Apple computers and the big names. There's a tremendous amount of consumption that happens without a major label attached to it. And some of it, particularly, if you're talking about small locally sourced goods is very positive. And some of it is completely under the radar and engages working conditions that are worst than any you'd find in a multinational factory.
Ms. THOMAS: When I was…
JUDITH: Well, what about the screening they do?
CONAN: Dana Thomas, I'm sorry, you wanted to come in there?
Ms. THOMAS: All I was going to say, when I was in China researching my book "Deluxe," I visited a factory that makes luxury handbags. And, actually, it's not just luxury brand, it mad middle market sort of Corvette's, JC Penny handbags and then also luxury brand handbags for brands that you know and brands often who say they don't produce in China. But that's another discussion.
And this factory was just beautiful. I mean, when we say made in China, we often sort of automatically think sweatshop. This place was like a college campus. The workers lived in dorms that were nicer than anything I lived in at college when I went to state schools in Pennsylvania. It was - they had a basketball court, a cafeteria, a computer room, a library, bicycles to ride into town to meet their friends for the movies.
It felt like a college campus too because everyone was between 16 and 26. They didn't work back - they weren't allowed to work back-to-back shifts. The factory is closed on Sundays, which is rare. But nevertheless, this factory was this way. It was absolutely a great place. It felt like a college, you know? Except instead of going to lectures, they were making handbags, but very good conditions.
But that's said, that evening, I was going back to Hong Kong in a car and we're reading the newspaper and there was a front page story about a worker who had dropped dead walking out of the factory having worked 72 hours straight.
So you always have the good and the bad, but they are, in - trying to raise the level of quality of the work - workplace in China. And as a result, the price of work in China labor is going up, and there are strikes now. And workers are demanding more perks. And therefore, now, the companies are seeking out cheaper labor markets such as Vietnam and Cambodia.
You know, the labor is always - cheap labor and particularly garment productions is always nomadic and it's always looking for a new place to produce for less. And I think that will always be a problem in - sweatshops will always be a problem in society.
CONAN: We're going to continue this conversation in just a couple of minutes.
Also, we'll talk about a man paralyzed on the football field who made an almost miraculous recovery - the remarkable story of Kevin Everett. Stay with us.
I'm Neal Conan. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
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CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.
In just a couple of minutes, we're going to be talking about the remarkable story of Kevin Everett, a player who, just three months ago, many people believed would never walk again. He's walking now. We'll tell you why that happened.
And right now, we're continuing our conversation about sweatshop labor and how a consumer can find out whether what they're buying is sweatshop-free.
Our guests are Dana Thomas who has followed this story for many years. She is with Newsweek and wrote "Deluxe: How Luxury Lost Its Luster." Dan Viederman joins us. He is the director of Verite, an independent, nonprofit, social auditing and research organization that does factory inspections around the world for big name corporations such Levi's, the GAP and Timberland. Also with us is Charles Kernaghan, director of the National Labor Committee.
And, Charles Kernaghan, let me turn to you. You mentioned earlier that perhaps legislation rather than monitoring is the way to go on this. What makes you think legislation, a law passed in this country, would actually be effective in closing down factories that have very poor working conditions overseas?
Mr. KERNAGHAN: Well, it's actually - the legislation is called the Decent Working Conditions and Fair Competition Act. It was introduced by Senator Byron Dorgan of North Dakota into the Senate. It's been introduced in the House as well. It's based on legislation passed earlier by Congress called the Dog and Cat Fur Protection Act of 2000. This was a case where the Burlington Coat Company was making nice jackets in China with fur collars. And for some odd reason, they put a truthful content on the label. And when it came to the fur, it said dog and cat fur. So…
CONAN: And anybody who read that label promptly changed their minds probably.
Mr. KERNAGHAN: They did. They went berserk, quite frankly, and so did the Congress. So the Congress immediately passed legislation to prohibit the import or sell of dog and cat fur in the United States, the export of dog or cat fur from the United States, or the import of dog and cat fur into the United States.
So this was a precedent where Congress had stood up to protect dogs and cats in China. So a lot of us got to be - we started thinking about this along with this Senator Dorgan and many others and came up with a legislation very similar. And essentially, what it says is if you - the companies for - on this point forward - when this legislation passes, the companies will be held legally accountable to respect the local labor laws in the countries in which they produce. We're not setting minimum wages or doing anything like that. They just have to respect the labor laws in the country in which they produce along with the core international labor organizations, internationally recognized worker rights standards. It's very simple - no child labor, no forced labor, freedom of association, right to organize.
So this legislation, overnight, would protect - it would protect the human being who makes the product at least as much as the product is now protected by enforceable laws that the corporations have demanded to protect their trademarks and their corporate products. So there would be some equality between the product and the human being.
Once it's no longer monitoring, you know, which the companies have a right to do, and in some cases, it works. But once companies are held legally accountable to respect fundamental worker rights, they'll do it. And, in fact, they'll lay down the law because they known this legislation - was endorsed recently by Senator Hillary Clinton, by Senator Joe Biden, there's 18 co-sponsors in the Senate. There's - by the end of the year, there's going to be about a hundred eighty co-sponsors in the House. This thing's really moving, one of the fastest moving bills in the House. The companies will know that now, they have to respect these laws. These factories will be - there'll be a huge change all over the world, and they'll be demanding of these factories that they meet these obligations.
And the Federal Trade Commission will oversee this, but there will also be a private right of action. So if one retailer is being undercut by another who is using sweatshop labor illegally, that retailer, that investor, that religious organization, that labor union could sue this retailer. So in other words, this is very effective legislation.
CONAN: Well, they'd have to prove it.
And Dana Thomas…
Mr. VIEDERMAN: Yeah.
CONAN: …do you think that this would be effective?
Ms. THOMAS: I think it would certainly help. I think, you know, anything that we can do to try to enforce human rights laws and rules in foreign countries, you know, the standards to which we believe people should be treated, and the working standards, the better it is.
And right now, there are no ways of insisting on this other than the companies themselves. And, of course, the companies aren't going to insist that much because their shareholders want the profits. So, you know, it comes back to government oversight, you know?
We - there's a lot of politicians who believe in deregulation, but, in a lot of times, we need the regulation. We need the oversight in order to insist if it's not within - it's not domestic policy then, you know, in the globalized world, we need to insist. Sorry, this isn't good enough for America. You've got to meet our standards.
CONAN: Dan Viederman, presumably, companies like yours would be hired in some of these circumstances to investigate conditions overseas. With legislation like this, do you think it could be more effective than just monitoring?
Mr. VIEDERMAN: I think what we're talking about really is the limitation of voluntary efforts. And right now, what we have is a whole patchwork and some ways of voluntary efforts - some of them meaningful, some of them not; some of them purely smokescreens or sort of the labor equivalent of green washing. And what legislation does, it really levels the playing field and, at least, theoretically, it creates a kind of accountability that didn't exist before. I think it's - neither legislation nor any particular intervention, be it monitoring or training or anything, is going to solve all the problems. So if we do require better monitoring overseas, well, then we need to make sure that all the monitoring is up to standard. So there's a cascading series of things that we may need to take care of.
But I think moving from a situation where it is really impenetrable for consumers to understand this potpourri, this alphabet soup of voluntary initiatives, you know, the difference between the FLA, SAI and ETI and anybody else - and those are the three of the most meaningful ones - then it - then if we move beyond that, I think we've taken an important step towards one very, very key change, which is getting consumers able to act in a more effective way.
Mr. VIEDERMAN: I talked to companies and they - sorry, I just one last thing - and they don't really see the business case in doing better working conditions in their supply chains, and this might help.
CONAN: One final call, and this is Maureen(ph). Maureen with us from Amagansett in New York.
MAUREEN (Caller): Yes, I just wanted to say that I do not believe that the American public cares how the merchandise is made; what the conditions are. When you see them going into the stores, buying the merchandise, especially this Christmas, they want everything that is so cheap that there is no way that anybody can make this merchandise and make it at a profit, instead of losing it.
And the American public is the one who has to make the decisions. All of the things that you propose are wonderful, but they're not realistic.
CONAN: Does that describe you as a consumer, Maureen?
MAUREEN: No, I have a retail store, and I try very hard to buy merchandise which is not made in sweatshops, that is fair. But when my prices are fair, then I have a problem many times trying to sell it because they feel that it is too expensive and they go to a TJ Maxx or at Loeman's(ph) or at some other place where they can get it for nothing.
CONAN: Maureen, thanks very much for the call, and I think all of our guest today would probably say amen to that.
Thank you all for joining us today. Dana Thomas, following sweatshops and their products as a journalist for many years, author of "Deluxe: How Luxury Lost Its Luster," Newsweek's cultural correspondent, with us today from Paris, France. Thanks very much.
Ms. THOMAS: Thanks for having me.
CONAN: Dan Viederman, the executive director of Verite, with us from WBUR, a member station in Boston. Thank you.
Mr. VIEDERMAN: I enjoyed being here. Thanks.
CONAN: And Charles Kernaghan who's the director of the National Labor Committee. Thanks very much for your time today.
Mr. KERNAGHAN: Thank you.
CONAN: And the story of - a story of a man who learned to walk after many said he would not. Stay with us.
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