Garment Workers Describe Conditions : Labor: Women are visiting U.S. to make American consumers aware of abuses.


They describe themselves as poor teen-age girls from Central America who, as shirt factory laborers in their homelands, endured brutal working conditions while earning less than 60 cents an hour.

But now, brought to this country to put a human face on offshore labor abuses, Claudia Leticia Molina and Judith Yanira Viera are challenging big U.S. retailers to stop stocking their shelves with clothing sewn in rogue overseas plants.

At the same time, the two teen-agers--and the U.S. activists championing their cause--are trying to penetrate the consciences of the American consumers who ultimately wear the garments made by abused workers.


Molina and Viera appeared in Los Angeles this week as part of a North American tour organized by the National Labor Committee, a New York-based activist group. Funded by unions, foundations and religious organizations, the committee focuses on worker and human rights in Central America.

The visit--coming less than a week after California and federal officials discovered more than 60 Thai nationals allegedly laboring in near-slavery conditions at an El Monte compound--hit a responsive chord among union and immigrant rights advocates locally.

While some retail industry leaders expressed skepticism about the charges, several chains said they have launched investigations. In fact, Gap Inc., owner of one of the nation’s biggest specialty clothing chains, said it has already stopped doing business with the El Salvador plant where Viera claims to have worked.

Stan Raggio, a Gap senior vice president, said the company’s probe of the plant began several months ago and that it has not uncovered evidence corroborating Viera’s story. Still, he said, the company is continuing its investigation because of the seriousness of the allegations.

“We really strive to assure fair, safe and ethical treatment of the people who make our clothes all over the world,” Raggio said. Gap considered the El Salvador plant an “insignificant” supplier, Raggio said, but he acknowledged that the chain had been buying 20% of the shirts produced by the factory.

Raggio said about 55% of Gap’s merchandise is made overseas, in more than 40 countries.

A spokesman for the National Retail Federation, the nation’s biggest retail trade association, said representatives of his organization along with various retail and apparel companies will meet today in Washington with officials from Honduras and El Salvador to discuss the issue. But the spokesman, NRF Vice President Robert Hall, also suggested that the issues raised by the National Labor Committee were politically motivated, timed to influence a legislative battle expected in Washington next month over a bill that would lift restrictions on trade with Caribbean and Central American nations.

The National Labor Committee acknowledged it is fighting the bill, known as the Caribbean Basin Initiative, but it says it has the evidence to support its claims of labor abuses. The group has established its credentials as a muckraker: Three years ago, it embarrassed the George Bush Administration by revealing that a federal agency was spending tax dollars on programs that lured jobs away from the United States to Central America.

To dramatize its evidence this time, the group brought Viera and Molina from their homelands to speak, through interpreters, to members of Congress and reporters across the country. In Los Angeles on Monday and Tuesday, Viera said she and her co-workers in El Salvador--predominantly teen-age girls, some as young as 15--routinely worked 18-hour shifts. Union organizers, she said, were routinely fired and sometimes beaten; sexual overtures from company officials were common.

Viera added that deductions were taken from workers’ paychecks for medical coverage but that the workers were prevented by the plant’s manager from receiving care at the local medical clinic. Still, Viera, who gave her age as 18 but looked even younger, said she worked at the job for 56 cents an hour to help support her family. “We want these jobs, but we don’t want them under these conditions,” she said.

Molina, 17, described similar conditions at her factory, where her job paid 38 cents an hour. She said she agreed to come to the United States “for all of our own people who are still working in the factories and bearing the threats and screams” of their bosses.

“I went through the fifth grade and I’d like to continue in my studies, but the company won’t allow it,” she added, saying that required overtime prevented her from returning to school.

Eddie Bauer, another retailer that has done business with the El Salvador factory, said it is looking into the allegations.