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.

Obviously, if a huge manufacturer finds a great supplier, it doesn't want rivals flocking to the same door. Still, Kernaghan thinks the competition argument is lame: "All these (competing) labels are produced right next to each other, and one of the ways the maquilas promote themselves is they have all the different clothes they make hanging on the walls. Everybody already knows who's where; the only people left out of the loop are the consumers."

FINDING FACTORIESTo figure out where Kellwood's factories are, you have to play Chinese checkers, moving almost randomly through hundreds of labor, government and activist groups. Most know of Kellwood but aren't sure of its labels and subsidiaries and would never consider directing a campaign its way. With budgets the size of thimbles, they must travel to each country, hunt down the factories, finagle their way inside and slowly earn the workers' trust. Wanting instant impact, they plan their campaigns around jazzy brand names like Gap, Nike and Reebok, not corporate abstractions like Kellwood.

So you call, and you call, and you call. Turns out there's a nun in Hartford, Conn., Dr. Ruth Rosenbaum, who's a member of the Independent Monitoring Working Group that's helping the Gap clean up its act. Using a database from the Mexican government, she pulls up three Kellwood locations, one in Piedras Negras and two in Puebla. Ricardo Hernandez, who works with the American Friends Service Committee and its border workers' effort, brings up two more: the Lader maquiladora in Plaxcala (300 employees) and Grupo Maquilador de Jalapa in Jalapa, Vera Cruz (1,200 employees).

Carlos Lopez, at the San Antonio-based Coalition for Justice in the Maquiladoras, says he came across Kellwood when one of its contractors, a Korean-owned maquiladora in Mexico, abruptly closed its doors. The owners couldn't pay their rent -- so they left without paying their 240 workers. "It's weird," says Lopez, "because the maquiladora was Korean-owned, but Kellwood was making sportswear there for Koret of California and Napa Valley. We initiated a campaign, and letters were sent to Kellwood ... but the workers are still sitting outside the plant."

Julie Su of the Asian Pacific-American Legal Center in Los Angeles, remembers Kellwood's Sag Harbor labels made under questionable conditions in LA factories about four years ago. The Chicago-based U.S./Labor Education in the Americas project has record of Kellwood's using two Guatemalan factories, Kol Nidrei and Calimero, around that time. The NLC found Kellwood in Haiti in 1996 -- and can't resist pointing out that they were one of 87 firms that stayed during the coup, asking the Bush Administration for a loophole through the OAS embargo. The NLC says that during the coup, wages were slashed to 14 cents an hour -- and later, when the Haitian government set a new minimum wage, Excel Apparel Exports, jointly owned and operated by Kellwood, compensated by increasing worker quotas by 133 percent.

In October, union organizer Yannick Etienne and Haitian garment worker Therese Denestant spoke here in St. Louis for Amnesty International, noting that one Haitian factory is very much like another: "The managers all know each other -- they socialize, live in the same neighborhoods, go to the same schools," Denestant told The Riverfront Times. "So they have the same system." Workers, meanwhile, suffer "back pain, ulcers, lung problems, carpal tunnel, eye problems because you are focused so small" -- yet "garment factories just have to put up a sign that they are hiring people and hundreds come every day." Aren't there other options? "Be a maid or a street vendor, or work in a pawnshop."

Yannick spoke about the unusually high number of children who show up in Haitian clinics badly burned because, with their parents away from home 16 hours a day, they try to fix themselves food. "The infants drink coffee," she added, "because the mom has to leave home at 5:15 a.m. and can't breastfeed again until 7 p.m." What about formula? "A pound of good imported powdered milk costs 150 gourdes (about five days' pay)." A breast pump? She smiled wryly. "Where would they keep the milk? There is no refrigerator, and it is very hot."

CRACKING THE CODEKellwood opened its international division back in 1977; by 1992, it had cut its U.S. workforce 59 percent. The same year, Kellwood adopted a policy on business conduct -- but didn't ask contractors to comply with it until 1995, after the U.S. Department of Labor made a sweep of Southern California garment contractors and found 11 Kellwood contractors violating wage and hour laws. In 1996, the Labor Department reprimanded two Kellwood subsidiaries for contractor violations: David Brooks' supplier owed workers $58,000 in unpaid overtime, and deCorp (which made dresses for JC Penney) was using Truong Sewing in Dallas, which wasn't paying overtime at all. Kellwood said they'd known this for five months, through their own internal monitoring, and had been working with Truong. Undertone: They did not need the Labor Department interfering.

Unmoved, the Labor Department elicited the promise that giant Kellwood would become a model of monitoring for the entire industry.

Today, by comparison with most garment makers, they are. They have a lengthy code of contractor compliance posted at their Web site, and they say it's on factory bulletin boards, too. They spend more than $1 million each year monitoring compliance, sending division staff, buyers and even external, hired auditors to inspect their contractors. Legally, their record's squeaky-clean.

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