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Before the US House Subcommittee
On International Organizations and Human Rights

July 15, 1996 — US House of Representatives, Subcommittee on Internatoinal Organizations and Human Rights, Washington DC


Mr. Chairman, members of the Committee, I would like to thank you for your invitation to appear and your willingness to accommodate my schedule. I do not take your kindness lightly.

I believe this Committee has the means to formulate real and substantive change as to how garments are made for the American consumer. I am grateful that I can be even a small part of that process.

Mr. Chairman I would be less than candid with you if I did not tell you that some two months ago I was little more than an entertainer. I associated my name with line of clothing so that a portion of the dollars raised could go toward helping AIDS and crack addicted children in New York.

That fund raising effort worked beyond my wildest dreams. Today Cody’s House and Cassidy’s Place have become national models for how to bring sunlight into the lives of children seared by pain. Other charities have also benefited from this effort.

And so it was nothing less than an assault on my very soul when a witness before Congress suggested that I was using the sweat of children . . . to help children. I would submit to this Committee that it was in that single instant that I was introduced to the unforgiving..and often unfair.. cauldron of public policy.

Today, I am still far from an expert..although in the last several months I have learned far more about the garment industry than Regis will ever know. And for that I am sure he is grateful.

In all seriousness, this Committee has demonstrated that every one of us.. from the entertainer who lends her name to the consumer in the store.. has an obligation to know how and why a garment was made.

This consumer has learned from people like Wendy Diaz that we are now morally compelled to ask, “What can we do to protect labor rights in factories around the world and right here in America?”

Fortunately, there are those seeking to identify and penalize abusers. Wal-Mart, which distributes Kathie Lee fashions, has prevented some 100 factories in 16 countries from working on their garments because of violations. And Wal-Mart is stepping up their oversight in coordination with my own plans for on site monitoring.

I have discovered that this is not a problem that has cropped up overnight. Experts tell me it is pervasive in the garment industry and our reports suggest that the sweat shop never really left us.

And I am also discovering that there is no one overnight solution to the problem but we are beginning to create a framework for solutions.

For starters, working with Wal-Mart, I plan to implement a plan whereby any Kathie Lee fashion wear will be done in factories willing to submit to surprise inspections by an independent inspector general team. Their mission will be to ensure that safe and responsible working conditions are met. Factories that refuse inspection, or ignore warnings, will be dropped as manufacturers.

And yet taking work out of factories that abuse their employees puts those employees on unemployment. I would ask this Committee, what “big stick” does the retailer or..the talk show host.. have when the only means to get the factory in compliance is moving the work elsewhere.

Ironically, the factory in Honduras where Wendy Diaz was abused continues to employ a steady 1,000 people even after Wal-Mart pulled their work that carries my name. Other manufacturers don’t seem to have a problem with reports that these dreadful conditions exist. Punitive actions don’t seem to phase the owners of this particular factory.

I have also discovered that implementing an inspector general program is not as simple as hiring a team of investigators. Local laws are often muddy..and following the trail of subcontractors, where much of the abuse takes place, is difficult at best. In addition, employees are often wary of independent inspectors so decisions have to be made that identify responsible local human rights organizations where there is only one agenda.. creating an environment where one can work in dignity.

So while an inspector general program is a responsible start we recognize that it is not a panacea to the problem. It may, in fact, be just the beginning.. of the beginning.

Allies are nothing less than critical in this fight. That is why I would welcome Congressman Smith’s proposal that would bring the full weight of the American government to bear on international child labor violations.

Mr. Chairman, and members of the Committee, I would not be so presumptuous as to be able to comment on the specifics of the legislation but I do appreciate the following:

The proposal that would allow the US Labor Department to create an accreditation process to monitor working conditions overseas would be of enormous value in stopping this practice. It becomes obvious to me that while Kathie Lee Gifford Fashions can create an oversight program, it can be easily dismissed by factories who are indifferent to the issue if they have other paying customers under their roof.
In addition, this proposal becomes a potent weapon because it elevates the problem from just one factory in one city within one nation to an issue where entire governments must get involved or risk damage to their economy. Much the way the human rights watch list added muscle to our intolerance of abuses abroad I would hope that this legislation would ensure that child labor becomes equally repugnant to everyone.
I would welcome an opportunity to work with the Chairman, and members of this Committee, if you believe my support would aid in gaining swift approval of this legislation.
In the last two months I have met people from all walks of life and from both sides of the political aisle who are seeking to solve this problem. From Wendy Diaz and Archbishop Cardinal O’Connor to Jay Mazur of UNITE, New York Governor George Pataki and Attorney General Dennis Vacco, I find a common thread of decency that seeks to end the practice of sweat shops and child labor.

And tomorrow I look forward to attending a summit on this issue convened by Labor Secretary Robert Reich. It is my hope that this hearing and tomorrow’s summit will ensure that this issue is dealt with in a substantive and meaningful way.

Mr. Chairman, I am an entertainer who had a simple idea..create fashion wear with my name on it to help raise money for charity. In hindsight I would conclude that an explanation of quantum physics is far simpler. This much is clear; I have learned that each one of us, whether in Congress, in corporate America, in a television studio, or in a shopping mall, has, as a moral imperative, the need to address this issue.

I don’t have all the answers but I now have the right questions. I would welcome yours.