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Shopper concern about sweatshop labor carries uncertain price tag for retailers

Chicago Tribune  |  August 24, 2000  |  Share  |  Source article

Five years ago, the story of 72 Thai garment workers held prisoner in El Monte, Calif., captured the nation's attention.

The illegal immigrants, who sewed clothing for a supplier to many of the nation's largest retailers, were working 20-hour shifts in an apartment complex surrounded by barbed wire. After they were freed by the U.S. Immigration Service, the El Monte workers became symbols of the ongoing evil of sweatshops in the U.S. and abroad.

U.S. Secretary of Labor Robert Reich threatened to draw up a "black list" of retailers that purchased sweatshop goods. The National Retail Federation formed a sweatshop-fighting task force and held seminars on "supplier compliance." College students took up the anti-sweatshop banner, holding protests at retailers and campus bookstores.

In recent years, the sweatshop issue has faded from the headlines with a few notable exceptions. But retailers that felt the fury of anti-sweatshop activists and legislators haven't forgotten what it was like. They are an eclectic group that includes merchants as diverse as Gap Inc., Nike, Montgomery Ward & Co., Limited Inc. and tony Neiman-Marcus Group.

Now, it's Kohl's Corp. that is feeling the heat. The fast-growing apparel chain from Menomonee Falls, Wis., has been chosen as the latest target of protests by two anti-sweatshop groups, the United Students Against Sweatshops and the National Labor Committee in New York.

The groups, which often work together, are accusing Kohl's of having its private-label Sonoma jeans made at a Taiwanese-owned plant in Nicaragua that has fired workers who organized a union to fight for a small wage increase. The factory pays workers 20 cents to sew a pair of pants that Kohl's sells for $30, according to Charles Kernaghan, executive director of the National Labor Committee.

But do value-oriented consumers really care where their clothing is made or under what conditions, as long as the price is right? Retail experts are skeptical.

"Shoppers are sympathetic to the plight of Third World workers," said George Rosenbaum, chief executive of Leo J. Shapiro & Associates, a consumer research firm. "But the number who are willing to change their buying behavior is minimal."

Even if shoppers wanted to boycott sweatshop goods, they would have a hard time, Rosenbaum added. "They would have to stop buying athletic shoes. It's hard to find a shoe or a piece of clothing that you can be sure wasn't made in a sweatshop."

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