EYE OF THE NEEDLE

Kellwood's taking fashion forward by making virtually all our clothes in the Third World. But the St. Louis giant carefully cloaks its operations, its plant locations and its monitoring of labor conditions.

Out of the question, replied Christine Fowler, Kellwood's St. Louis spokeswoman, using words like "strategy" and "positioning."

Could we at least interview a few employees in other parts of the company? Not directly, said Fowler -- it's too hard to control -- "but maybe if you sent some questions, we could find the answers for you." We sent detailed questions spanning design, production, textiles, business goals and, yes, factory conditions. This time, the response came from New York: "If you are interested in our contractor-compliance program, you can get that off our Web site," spokeswoman Donna Weaver said curtly, canceling all cooperation.

The stonewall wasn't new: When the Clinton administration made its first attempt to establish global labor standards, the White House Anti-Sweatshop Task Force, Kellwood politely declined to join, wary of being railroaded into standards set by human-rights and labor groups. Upbin told reporters that Kellwood had its own monitoring program, thank you very much; they'd already conducted thousands of audits and terminated relationships with more than 100 contractors. But they wanted the process to remain private.

Former Kellwood CEO William McKenna: "I would prefer to have our total production in the U.S. in wholly owned Kellwood plants, but that is impossible. If I were to do that tomorrow, I would put Kellwood out of business."
Former Kellwood CEO William McKenna: "I would prefer to have our total production in the U.S. in wholly owned Kellwood plants, but that is impossible. If I were to do that tomorrow, I would put Kellwood out of business."

Above all, they didn't want to answer the public's questions. When Steve Coates, executive director of the U.S./Labor Education in the Americas, contacted Kellwood about a prominent factory in Guatemala several years ago, he says, "it was like sending a letter into the Twilight Zone. They are one of the least responsive companies out there." Bill Ramsey, director of St. Louis' nonprofit Human Rights Action Service, tried three times to ascertain Kellwood's involvement in various Kathie Lee scandals and never received an answer.

Kellwood probably wasn't directly involved; its subsidiary, Halmode Apparel, oversees all fashion and merchandising for Kathie Lee but only manufactures dresses, skirts, rompers and such, licensing out the rest of the line. Hence Kellwood's narrow escape in 1996, when scandal broke about a Honduran Kathie Lee factory where 14-year-olds were said to be working 20-hour days for 40 cents an hour. Turned out those clothes were supposed to be manufactured by a New York company called Bonewco, which subcontracted some of the work to a manufacturer in Alabama, which sub-subcontracted part of the order to New Jersey based Universal Apparel, which in turn sub-sub-subcontracted it.

Last September, a report struck closer to home. The National Labor Committee held press conferences with two employees fired from the Caribbean Apparel maquiladora (the term for any assembly factory in a Latin American free-trade zone) near Santa Ana, El Salvador. Fired for union activities, the women described intense heat, poor ventilation, screaming bosses, mandatory pregnancy tests that cost them two days' wages. They also rattled off labels they'd sewn -- and the list included Kellwood's Components, Koret and Kathie Lee.

Robert W. Adler, the tanned, immaculately tailored president of Halmode, leapt to his feet, recalls NLC director Charles Kernaghan, saying, ""I own the Kathie Lee Gifford label, and Kathie Lee Gifford is the Joan of Arc of sweatshops.'" The next morning, Adler and Frank Gifford flew to Washington, D.C., to crash the press conference there. "We gave Gifford a chance to speak," says Kernaghan, "and he started crying, saying, "She's a woman, she's my wife, she's done more to help people than anyone else.' Now, this is supposed to be a civil press conference, but I start yelling: "What about the 13-cent wages in China -- aren't they people, too?'"

Cameramen were shouting questions, and Kernaghan could see reporters holding cell phones up in the air so the people back at their newsrooms could listen. According to Kernaghan, Adler said, "The pregnancy tests you're talking about, that's a cultural issue -- that's El Salvador's culture. The armed guards, they are U.S. Customs officials; these are free-trade zones. The 60-cent wages, there's nothing we can do about them; that's the legal minimum wage. It's the entire global economy you are questioning."

The head of United Students Against Sweatshops approached the microphone, so angry he was shaking, and halfway through his diatribe, Adler left the room. Kernaghan left, too, and in the hall he says he saw "their PR guy with his arm around Adler's shoulders, saying, "Bob, it's time you go home.'"

Kernaghan's chuckling; he embraces his role as shit-disturber and doesn't hesitate to focus his attacks where they'll draw the most attention. "Workers never even collected labels until we asked them to," he remarks, noting that many don't even know whose clothes they're sewing, making it incredibly difficult to trace specific abuses back up the kinked supply chain to the multinational. "Now, if a label's missing, the company charges them $1," he adds. "We started looking at garbage dumps; now they burn the garbage."

The NLC has three goals: a living wage for overseas workers; truly independent monitoring; and public disclosure of factory locations -- to which Kellwood came tantalizingly close at the Caribbean Apparel press conference. "We will absolutely disclose it," said Adler. "There are no secret cabals here, there are no secret factories." But the very next day, Kellwood issued a statement expressing confidence in its monitoring and retracting Adler's offer: "While the company for competitive reasons cannot publish a list of its contractors, we continue to insist that each of them respect the dignity of workers."

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