Anti-sweatshop activists are targeting Walt Disney Co. in a campaign designed to discredit companies that "cut and run" when confronted with evidence of labor abuses in foreign factories.
Instead of severing their business relationship with a Bangladesh garment plant accused of exploiting workers, Disney and its U.S. licensee should use their financial leverage to force constructive change, activists say.
Their characterization of events at the Bangladesh plant was disputed by Disney officials, who said they aggressively enforce a code of conduct that prohibits exploitation of workers in factories where Disney products are made.
The campaign is being launched this week by a coalition of churches, unions and human rights groups that hope they can shame big, image-conscious companies such as Disney into setting a precedent.
"We're concentrating on the most egregious problem," said the Rev. David Dyson, pastor of Lafayette Avenue Presbyterian Church in Brooklyn and leader of People of Faith Network. "These companies, at the first sign of trouble, cut and run and go to the next most miserable place around the globe."
The coalition wants Congress to ban importation and procurement of products made with sweatshop labor and to require U.S. retailers to identify the factories where foreign goods originated.
But it does not advocate boycotts, which can leave exploited workers with no jobs at all.
Its campaign is focused on the Shah Makhdum factory in Dhaka, where about 450 workers made Winnie the Pooh shirts and jumpsuits bearing the Disney label. The work was done under contract with Jerry Leigh of California Inc., a Van Nuys firm licensed by Disney to produce the Pooh line.
Charles Kernaghan, a workers' rights activist who went to Bangladesh to investigate conditions at the plant, said employees were routinely required to work 14-to-15-hour shifts and seven-day workweeks but were not paid overtime as required by law. Wages ranged from 8 to 19 cents an hour, he said, or about 5 cents for every Disney garment produced.
Kernaghan said workers were subjected to verbal and physical abuse. The plant was hot, crowded and poorly ventilated, he said, and the drinking water contained high levels of bacteria.
This year, Jerry Leigh canceled its work at the plant and shifted production elsewhere. About 200 workers were laid off, and Kernaghan said conditions have worsened for those who remain.
"I want Disney to be back to the factory," said Lisa Rahman, a 19-year-old sewing machine operator who has come to the U.S. to participate in the campaign. "We need our jobs. We need our work."
Rahman was not laid off after the Disney work was canceled, but she fears that her job is endangered.
Mark Spears, director of corporate compliance at Disney, said Disney conducted inspections and found no evidence of the abuses alleged by Kernaghan. He said Disney still considered the plant an acceptable manufacturing site.