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.

Besides, "the nations of the world will improve to the extent that trade exists," insists Russell Roberts, an economist at Washington University's Center for American Business. He's confident that progress will continue "as long as we don't punish people poorer than us by expecting them to have the same standards we do. Anytime you want to impose standards that are more than the ones in place, you are basically prejudicing those workers in the eyes of the rest of the world. And people line up to get those oppressive jobs; it makes you wonder how oppressive they really are."

Unless, of course, you've been there.

Lorena del Carmen Hernandez was one of the workers fired this September from Caribbean Apparel, the Kellwood contractor in El Salvador's Americas free-trade zone. Hernandez had worked as a production-line operator, "Monday-Saturday from 6:50 a.m.-6:10 p.m., and at times until 9:40 p.m," she told reporters at the NLC press conference. Her base wage was 1250 colones a month (about $145, rising to $160 with overtime), and workers were locked into the factory, then strip-searched when they left. "They screamed and would hit the tables when the production was not enough," said Hernandez. "The chief of production, Mr. Lee, screamed the most. They only allowed us to drink water once in the morning and once in the afternoon" (same for using the bathroom, a frequency that increases the rate of urinary-tract infections). "When the monitors come from the U.S., the factory is painted. They clean everything. Then, when the monitors are about to arrive, the treatment becomes excellent." Hernandez said they were forced to work overtime afterward to make up for time lost to the inspection.

Contrast that with the experience of Ruby Richardson, who worked more than 20 years for the Kellwood factory in Little Rock, Ark., staying until the factory closed in 1983. She started at $1.25 an hour in 1963, and her pay eventually rose to $5.50 an hour. "Of course, they closed a few years after the union came in, just like they said they would," she says in a phone interview. "But even before they closed they were having us cut the pieces and send them overseas to be sewn."

How were working conditions before that -- any problems with Arkansas' summer heat? "No, not unless something went down," she answers, puzzled. "Sometimes they'd have a problem with the air conditioning." What about sexual harassment? "Never saw any." Did they do pregnancy tests? "Goodness, no. If you got pregnant, Kellwood would give you a maternity leave, and when you came back you got your job back." Working hours? "Eight hours a day; sometimes overtime on Saturday if we had a big run." Did management lock the workers in? "Oh my, no. They did have security guards, but the only incident I remember was when a man came in to hit his wife and they escorted him out."

Richardson walked the picket line once and got her job back with no problems. But when Hernandez tried to organize, she was fired. Then, she said, the manager, Martin Yun, grilled her for hours: "You know why they took your job? You are sneaky. You were with a group. You know what group. Through the computer, I received information from the Ministry of Labor." Hernandez said Yun offered her a job in another factory, at higher wages, if she would name other unionists. "He threatened that if I didn't speak within three days, he would communicate with all the maquila companies in the country and give them my name so that I would never again find a job."

Kellwood promised to investigate.

But they won't be disclosing the results.

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