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Anti-Sweatshop crusader targeting Kohl`s stores in latest campaign

Chicago Tribune  |  August 23, 2000  |  Share

The man who made Kathie Lee Gifford cry is at it again.

Four years ago, Charles Kernaghan grabbed headlines with allegations that Gifford's clothing line, sold by Wal-Mart Stores Inc., was manufactured in sweatshops in New York and Honduras. Gifford tearfully denied the charges at first, only to later become a crusader in the anti-sweatshop movement.

Much has changed since then. After protests and boycotts by college students and others, many retailers are inspecting the factories where their goods are made and beefing up codes of conduct for third-party suppliers. Among the converts: casual clothing giant Gap Inc. and athletic shoemaker Nike.

But Kernaghan, executive director of the non-profit National Labor Committee in New York, believes there is no reason for complacency. He was in Chicago Tuesday with two Nicaraguan women from different factories who claim they were fired after organizing unions to obtain small wage increases.

This time, Kernaghan is trying to bring pressure on Kohl's Corp. The Menomonee Falls, Wis.-based retailer uses factories owned by others in Central America to manufacture so-called private-label clothing for its fast-growing clothing chain.

In Nicaragua, women workers employed at the Taiwanese-owned Chentex factory earn 20 cents to make a pair of Sonoma jeans that Kohl's sells for $30, Kernaghan said. The same factory also produces jeans for J.C. Penney Co., Kmart Corp. and Wal-Mart, Kernaghan said.

Gldys Manzanares, who lives in a cinder-block house with four children and works at the Chentex factory, said she was fired for trying to organize a union. The fledgling union was seeking to increase the pay rate to 28 cents per pair of jeans, she said.

"All we're asking Mr. Kohl is to tell Chentex to start talking to us again," said Manzanares, 52. On Monday, Kernaghan and the two Nicaraguan women held press briefings in Milwaukee and paid a visit to Kohl's headquarters.

Of course, there is no Mr. Kohl anymore. But Kohl's current management is doing all it can to make sure that its suppliers treat their workers "fairly and with respect," said Kohl's spokeswoman Susan Henderson.

Kohl's has a strict code of conduct for its manufacturers and employs PricewaterhouseCoopers, the accounting and consulting firm, to monitor the factories where its goods are made, she said.

"If there are any violations, the company takes immediate and firm action, up to not purchasing from the vendor anymore," Henderson said.

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