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A Push to Improve Labor`s Lot Overseas

New York Times  |  September 27, 2002  |  Share  |  Source article

Published: September 27, 2002

Lisa Rahman, a 19-year-old garment worker from Bangladesh, is touring the United States for two seemingly contradictory reasons: to publicize working conditions at her factory and to urge the Walt Disney Company to continue making shirts there.

Ms. Rahman said she worked 14 hours a day, seven days a week at the Shah Makhdum factory in Dhaka, where she said managers sometimes hit workers and women were forced to quit if they became pregnant. She said workers received no vacation, holidays or sick days and earned about 14 cents an hour, meaning they earn about 5 cents for a shirt that sells for $17.99 in the United States.

Soon after a labor rights group began publicizing the factory's conditions last year, a Disney licensee that produces Winnie the Pooh shirts pulled all work out of the factory. But Ms. Rahman said Disney should send new business to the factory and make sure its conditions improve.

Ms. Rahman is visiting New York, Philadelphia and Washington this week as part of a campaign by the National Labor Committee, a labor rights group, to press companies to upgrade working conditions in Bangladesh.

''Disney must not cut and run,'' said Charles Kernaghan, director of the labor committee. ''Disney must return to the Shah Makhdum factory. It must clean up conditions at that factory.''

Mr. Kernaghan, who has publicized working conditions at factories producing for the Gap and the Kathie Lee Gifford line, invited Ms. Rahman and two other Bangladeshi workers to the United States to advance a broader campaign. This week the National Labor Committee and several unions, religious groups and community organizations are starting a push to persuade Congress to enact legislation that would bar imports from sweatshops.

Mark Spears, Disney's compliance officer, acknowledged that many factories in Bangladesh had problems, but he said that when Disney's monitors inspected the Shah Makhdum factory, they did not find the conditions publicized by Mr. Kernaghan.

Noting that Disney does not own garment factories, Mr. Spears said the company was working with owners in Bangladesh to improve conditions so that the factories would comply with Disney's code of conduct and licensees could use them.

Disney's licensee, not Disney, pulled the work out of the Shah Makhdum factory, Mr. Spears said, adding that any decision to return would be made by the licensee. ''We're encouraging people to continue manufacturing in Bangladesh, including at Shah Makhdum,'' he said.

Mr. Kernaghan urged American companies not to end production at factories with problems; he said companies should work to improve the plants.

The Rev. David Dyson, a Presbyterian minister and chairman of the People of Faith Network, a coalition with members from 10,000 congregations, said labor rights advocates were seeking antisweatshop legislation from Congress because of frustrations with the lack of progress in company-by-company pressure campaigns. He said many labor advocates were dissatisfied with relying on codes of conduct and private monitoring because that meant companies were responsible for their own compliance.

The new campaign is seeking a prohibition on imports from any factory that does not pay ''a sustainable wage'' and that violates International Labor Organization conventions that guaranteeg the right to unionize and that prohibit forced labor, child labor and racial and religious discrimination.

The National Retail Federation criticized the proposal, saying it would be difficult to administer. It predicted the proposal would face rough going on Capitol Hill.

Foreign government officials have signaled that they will fight the campaign, fearing that it will cause many factories to close.


Link to the original New York Times article

Preliminary Shah Makhdum report

Full Shah Makhdum report

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