"Sweatshop Day of Action"" Culminates in Pistachio's"

As part of a nationwide campaign against sweatshops worldwide and the unfair labor practices of U.S. corporations, the National Labor Committee headlined UB's "Sweatshop Day of Action" Monday, culminating with a speech in Pistachio's in the Student Union.

The talk, sponsored by the UB Environmental Network and the New York Public Interest Research Group, focused specifically on sweatshop conditions in Bangladesh and the questionable operations of New Era Cap Company, a baseball hat manufacturer.

"What we're going to be talking about tonight has everything to do with New Era," said NLC Executive Director Charles Kernaghan. "What they've unleashed here is vicious greed."

Kernaghan and three female garment workers from Bangladesh spoke to an audience composed of approximately 75 UB faculty and students.

"The workers are mostly young women and they are in a trap, stripped of their rights," Kernaghan said. "They are forced to work 14 hour shifts, from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m., seven days a week for eight cents an hour. Women in Bangladesh, between the ages of 16 and 25, are not in a university such as this one, but are making your caps and clothing."

The three garment workers make baseball caps and athletic clothing for a living. The women described their harrowing experiences in the sweatshops, where they have to work up to 14 hours a day, and sometimes 19 or 20 hours until four in the morning, when they sleep for three to four hours before returning to work by 8 a.m.

According to customs documents presented by Kernaghan, the caps the women produce cost $1.25 to manufacture, including the cost of shipping from Bangladesh.

One of the workers, Janu Akther, described her surprise when she discovered the cost of one cap. "Later I learned that one of these caps costs $17 or $18 in the United States," she said. "This is more than I earn in a month."

At one point an audience member asked if any of the women were married, to which Akther replied, "Sometimes a worker would all of a sudden marry a man, and then a year later they'd have a baby. With their work and wages they couldn't care for it properly and the child would die. Seeing that, I really don't want to get married."

The talk presented by the NLC is part of a campaign called "The Holiday Season of Conscience," a cooperative effort by several labor and human rights organizations including the Communications Workers of America, United Students Against Sweatshops and the Textile and Garment Workers Union.

The campaign seeks to challenge labor and human rights violations promulgated by U.S. corporations such as New Era and Nike in hopes of instituting measures to provide workers with organizational rights and fair wages. Among the measures endorsed by the campaign are the guarantee of payments to workers, reinstatement of fired employees and an independent monitoring system administered by labor and human rights organizations.

The NLC recently sent a delegation to Bangladesh, which returned distressing stories about U.S. garment industry operations in that country. According to the report issued by the delegation, there are 1.6 million apparel laborers working in 3,200 factories in Bangladesh. In addition, the NLC claims that workers make as little as eight cents an hour for 80 hours a week and are often subjected to verbal or physical abuse.

One of the factories in the study, Pro-Sports Ltd., a New Era affiliate company, requires workers to clock approximately 20.75 to 22.5 hours per day for seven days a week with only one day off per month. The garment workers at the factory are paid between 13 and 18 cents per hour without any health care or sick-day benefits, the report noted. Furthermore, the report claims workers are denied the right to organize and would be fired for noncompliance with the rule.

"They own nothing, absolutely nothing," Kernaghan said. "There is a constant pressure to produce more. The women tell us they can't even get days off to take care of their sick children. When these women are 25 or 26 years old, they're kicked out by these companies. When you young people get out of school and begin your lives, their lives have just about ended."

New Era, a manufacturer of baseball caps for more than a hundred colleges and universities nationwide - including UB - has been in the midst of an acrimonious dispute with workers who charge the New Era plant in Derby, N.Y. with unfair labor practices.

The Workers Rights Consortium issued a report, compiling its own findings with findings from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the National Relations Board, exposing the health and safety violations along with the unfair labor practices in which New Era has engaged.

Following an OSHA study revealing the lack of an Exposure Control Plan in New Era factories designed to eliminate or minimize the exposure of employees to blood following an injury to another employee, the Workers Rights Consortium issued a report based on OSHA's findings and their own surveys.

The report stated that 88 percent of the workers at New Era sustained some type of injury on the job and 46 percent of workers surveyed reported having been diagnosed with a musculo-skeletal disorder related to their work at the plant.

In addition, several testimonies from workers at the Derby site were elicited through interviews conducted by the WRC. The workers testified that New Era did not offer any remedies to relieve their problems after the employees missed work due to injuries.

The testimonies also pointed out New Era's unfair labor practices; in many of the cases, the workers in the Buffalo plant claim that in 1998, following their affiliation with CWA, New Era threatened to move production to the non-union plant in Alabama.

Furthermore, the WRC claims that New Era recently released a letter to state and local officials announcing that facilities in the Buffalo area would not be expanded due to "concerns over relations with union workers at local plants."

After the NLRB certified the CWA as the official bargaining representative of workers at the Derby plant, New Era announced the layoff of 125 workers and moved several machines to Alabama while rehiring workers at the Buffalo site. Toward the end of last year, New Era increased its work standards, forcing workers to produce up to 30 percent more goods in the same amount of time and threatened to reduce worker earnings by as much as 40 percent.

After workers rejected the measures, New Era declared a bargaining impasse, leading to a strike involving more than 230 CWA members in July.

According to The Buffalo News, Peter Augustine, chief operating officer, said that the Bangladesh plant meets minimum wage requirements and that he believed this conflict is an attempt by the CWA to pressure the company to a quick settlement.

Augustine also mentioned that the company has attempted to gain membership in the Fair Labor Association, which requires a code of conduct and labor rights. The issue remains unresolved, as New Era has made no further efforts at bargaining.

The talk at UB is one of several events scheduled by the National Labor Committee in hopes of spreading public awareness through the medium of colleges and universities.

"It's important to have these things," said Tim Marvin, president of the NYPIRG affiliate organization at UB. "It's important to be active and involved in these matters. A good citizen is an active one."

Spectrum Staff Writer Tai Khandaker contributed to this report.