In a global economy, it's hard to know who made your gift--and under what conditions
It's a perfect Kodak moment. On Christmas morning under the tree, Amanda is thrilled with her trendy new pair of Guess jeans and her Songbird Barbie doll. Joey thinks his new Nike cross-trainers are way cool, and he's in love with his Disney 101 Dalmatians jogging gear. Baby Sis is already kicking her new hand-sewn soccer ball in an imaginary game with her new 51-inch giant Bernie St. Bernard, which Mom bought from the world's most exclusive toy store, F.A.O. Schwarz, in New York City.
But if the kids knew how some of these gifts were made, it might cast a decided pall on their holiday cheer. Former workers and union organizers allege that some Guess clothing is made by suppliers who use underpaid Latino immigrants in Los Angeles, sometimes in their own homes. Mattel makes tens of millions of Barbies a year in China, where young female Chinese workers who have migrated thousands of miles from home are alleged to earn less than the minimum wage of $1.99 a day. Nike is criticized for manufacturing many of its shoes in tough labor conditions in Indonesia, and some of Disney's hottest seasonal products are being made by suppliers in Sri Lanka and Haiti--countries with unsavory reputations for labor and human rights. The soccer balls are sewn together by child laborers in Pakistan, and F.A.O. Schwarz's $150 Bernie St. Bernard was made in Indonesia; the company won't reveal who made the doggie, or under what conditions, for proprietary reasons.
Eye of the beholder. In an era when the economy is necessarily a global one, it is impossible for consumers to avoid products made under less than ideal labor conditions. Moreover, what may appear to be horrific working environments to most citizens in the world's richest nation are not just acceptable but actually attractive to others who live overseas or even in "Third World pockets" of the United States. Anyone even casually familiar with how some Americans recompense their (usually immigrant) housekeepers or nannies is well aware of the vast potential for hypocrisy when those same Americans then decide to sit in judgment of corporations.
Still, a growing number of manufacturers and retailers are coming under fire for how the goods they make and sell are produced. It started in earnest with the discovery of indentured Asian workers in a California garment factory in 1995. Then came reports about conditions in factories in Indonesia that make Nike products and plants in Central America and New York that produced clothing under the brand name of TV personality Kathie Lee Gifford for sale at Wal-Mart. A No Sweat campaign by Labor Secretary Robert Reich against U.S. sweatshops has turned up the heat. And a presidential task force debating the issue of sweatshops in the apparel industry is expected to issue its report early next year.
In short, labor, civic, religious, investor and consumer groups are pushing to improve the conditions of workers at the lowest end of a global supply chain. Some of these groups are advancing their own self-interests, to be sure--including labor unions that for decades have seized on arguments to oppose imports. But the cumulative effect of their campaigns is growing. Aided by Internet connections, for example, student groups are joining in, publishing lists of companies that allegedly make or sell goods produced in abysmal working conditions. "It's driving us nuts," says Tracy Mullin, president of the National Retail Federation, which represents the bulk of the nation's $1.3 trillion (not counting cars and groceries) retail industry. A U.S. News poll shows that 6 in 10 Americans are concerned about working conditions under which products are made in the United States and more than 9 in 10 are concerned about the working conditions under which products are made in Asia and Latin America. But fe