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US: Activist Group Links Pentagon, Firms to Child Labor

Washington Post
December 22nd, 2000

NEW YORK -- The Defense Department and five companies, including Sharper Image Corp. and Kohl's Corp., sell goods produced at factories in Asia and Central America that exploit workers, a labor rights group claimed.

The National Labor Committee for Worker and Human Rights, the New York-based notnprofit organization that revealed that child labor was used to manufacture the clothing line of TV personality Kathie Lee Gifford, also cited Nike Inc., Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and Farberware Products.

Spokesmen for Nike, Sharper Image, Farberware and Kohl's denied the allegations or said steps have been taken to improve factory conditions. The Defense Department and Wal-Mart did not return calls seeking comments.

"This is criminal exploitation, and we think American companies can do better than that," Charles Kernaghan, executive director of the committee, said at a news conference in Manhattan. "We are not calling for a boycott of their products. We want to expose these practices to the light of day and force them to do the right thing."

Kernaghan, who led the yearlong inquiry, timed the news conference for the Christmas shopping season because some of the products, such as Razor scooters made in China for Sharper Image, are among the most popular gift items.

"They have the right issue but the wrong company," said Vada Manager, Nike's director of global issues. "Where was Kernaghan when we raised wages 70 percent in Indonesia? We have a code that applies globally and that provides wages that far surpass regional or national minimum wages."

The committee said the Defense Department buys clothing for sale at military installations at "sweatshop" factories in Nicaragua and Myanmar.

Kernaghan said Kohl's violates its own corporate code of conduct by also importing products made at factories in Nicaragua and Myanmar that exploit workers. Kohl's spokeswoman Susan Henderson said PricewaterhouseCoopers inspected the factory in Nicaragua and reported code violations that were corrected. Henderson said wages there exceeded the nation's minimum wage. Kohl's stopped buying products from factories in Myanmar because conditions there were "unacceptable," she said.

Sharper Image spokeswoman Kathyrn Grant said an internal company investigation determined that conditions at its factories in China were "acceptable."

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