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Clothing Retailers In Middle Of Sweatshop Charges

August 3, 1995

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) _ They work up to 22 hours a day in clothing factories with only two bathroom breaks, then sleep on factory floors because there’s no time to go home before work starts again.

They can’t go to school because overtime is mandatory. They are berated and sexually harassed. They say their supervisors sometimes don’t allow them to visit a doctor until it’s too late.

Those are the conditions under which 18-year-old Judith Yanira Viera of El Salvador and 17-year-old Claudia Leticia Molina of Honduras claim they worked for 36 to 56 cents an hour in their countries before being fired for union organizing.

``We need these jobs, but not under these conditions,″ Viera said. ``There’s a huge amount of maltreatment.″

The two are part of a campaign to focus attention on the work conditions at some foreign factories as Congress prepares to debate a bill supporters say would help create jobs in Caribbean countries by encouraging U.S. business.

The bill, introduced by U.S. Rep. Phil Crane, R-Ill., would grant $2 billion in additional tariff breaks over five years to Caribbean countries so American companies doing business there would pay lower taxes on imports.

Supporters say the bill would create more jobs in those countries and even their trading field with Mexico, now that the North American Free Trade Agreement gives Mexico an advantage.

But opponents of the measure, concerned about the mistreatment of workers in some foreign factories, want provisions that would help improve work standards and discourage those conditions described by Viera and Molina.

Viera and Molina worked at factories that sew clothing for the Gap Inc., Eddie Bauer and other retailers that insist on codes of conduct, but critics say those codes are useless because they don’t have the force of law.

The National Labor Committee, a group that advocates better conditions for overseas workers, points to Viera and Molina as proof that company-supported codes of conduct are not enough.

Viera and Molina are touring the United States this month as guests of the NLC, to put a human face on the dollar figures and percentage formulas that so often make up trade agreements.

They have already spoken to educators in Minneapolis, lawmakers in Washington D.C., state college representatives in Pennsylvania and other interested parties in Boston, Baltimore, Chicago and Toledo.

On Wednesday, they met with representatives from the Gap, who promised to look further into the matter and try to reach some solution, Gap spokesman Dave Burlington said.

``We’re trying to seek support so things will change in our companies,″ Viera said Tuesday through a translator.

Asked about the allegations, a general manager for the Orion Apparel plant in Honduras, a Korean-owned factory that produces shirts for a Fruit of the Loom subsidiary, said they not only are untrue, but personally hurtful.

Danel Cho, general manager of Avvento Fashion, said Claudia Molina was a troublesome employee who was often absent and finally resigned for personal reasons.

``I feel suffering and distress (at the allegations) and am shedding tears in my mortification,″ Cho said.

Representatives of the Gap and Eddie Bauer also questioned the truth of the allegations, saying they could not be substantiated.

They were so disturbed when they first heard reports of mistreatment that they sent investigators to Honduras and El Salvador, Gap’s Senior Vice President of Sourcing Stan Raggio said.

The investigators found no violations. But the company stopped ordering garments, anyway, from Mandarin International, the Taiwanese-owned firm in El Salvador where Viera worked.

``We’re very serious about this,″ Raggio said. ``We don’t just want to publish a piece of paper that has no meaning or meat to it.″

The El Salvadorean embassy said such working conditions would be a violation of the country’s labor laws.