An arm of the Pentagon has come under fire for procuring large
quantities of apparel from a Nicaraguan factory that labor rights
groups say is a sweatshop and that the United States trade
representative has voiced serious concerns about.
Several members of Congress say it is wrong for the Pentagon
agency, which runs 1,400 stores at military bases and made $7.3
billion in sales last year, to obtain apparel from the Chentex
factory, which a Nicaraguan union has accused of firing more than
150 union supporters.
In an unusually stern letter, The United States trade
representative, Charlene Barshefsky, warned the Nicaraguan
government in October that the United States might rescind some
trade benefits unless it moved to ensure that Chentex complied with
Labor rights groups in the United States have mounted an intense
campaign against Chentex, a factory with 1,800 workers that is
owned by the Nien Hsing Textile Company, after Nicaraguan workers
accused the company of illegal firings. Many workers also complain
about low pay, monitored bathroom visits, large amounts of
mandatory overtime and being screamed at and occasionally hit by
Cynthia A. McKinney, Democrat of Georgia, who sits on the
procurement subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee,
said it was wrong for one federal agency, the Pentagon, to buy
large amounts of apparel from Chentex while another, the trade
representative's office, had singled out the factory for criticism.
Representative McKinney and several other House members are
working closely with a labor rights group that has obtained
shipping documents showing that the Army and Air Force Exchange
Service, a nonprofit Pentagon arm that runs the post exchanges, is
one of the Chentex's largest customers. Other major customers have
included the retailers Wal-Mart and Kohl's.
"The United States government is the last place that should be
supporting and coddling sweatshop labor and the violation of human
rights," Ms. McKinney said.
Labor rights groups and several House members say the Chentex
battle is important because it seeks to upgrade wages and working
conditions in poor nations at a time when the American economy is
importing more goods than ever and American companies are
relocating operations to low-wage countries.
Fred Bluhm, a spokesman for the Army and Air Force Exchange
Service, said that in light of the many criticisms of Chentex the
exchange service sent officials to Nicaragua to examine the Chentex
operation. "Our representative who went there found no problems,"
Carlos Yin, the general manager of Chentex, said in a telephone
interview that his company treats its workers well. He accused the
union of exagerating problems and he insisted that only 12 union
supporters had been fired, all of them union leaders. He said they
were dismissed legally, asserting that it was the union leaders who
had broken the law by calling a one-hour work stoppage and two-day
strike without the workers' approval.
"We didn't do anything wrong," Mr. Yin said. "Nicaraguan law
protects the workers very strong, and we can't go against the law."
But Charles Kernaghan, executive director of the National Labor
Committee, a New York-based labor rights group, said the company
dismissed far more than 100 union supporters after they went on
strike demanding a 40 percent wage increase.
At a factory that sews 35,000 pair of jeans a day, employees earn
about 20 cents for the work they put into a pair of jeans that
often sell retail for $30 in the United States. The workers, in
effect, demanded to be paid 8 cents more per pair.
Mr. Yin, the factory manager, said all of his workers earn at
least the minimum wage, which union leaders say is set
unrealistically low in developing countries in order to attract
Last summer, Representative Sherrod Brown, Democrat of Ohio,
visited Nicaragua and met mother who worked at Chentex 60 hours a
week, while her husband worked at another Nien Hsing factory for 70
hours a week, and yet they lived in a hut with a dirt floor. "The
couple had a 3-year-old daughter with discolored tips of her hair,
probably from a protein deficiency," he said. "These are people who
work 60, 70 hours a week, and their standard of living is just
Mr. Brown, who got 67 House members to sign a letter to President
Clinton last July about conditions at Chentex and another
Nicaraguan factory, Mil Colores, said he would hold a news
conference this week criticizing the Army and Air Force Exchange
"I'm outraged that American taxpayers are being made part of this
sweatshop global economy in this way," he said.
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