TV talk show host Kathy Lee Gifford stood with President
Clinton announcing the findings of his Sweatshop Task
Force last April, she was a powerful symbol of the fight
against sweatshops and child labor. Yet, Kathy Lee's activism
has emerged only haltingly, often painfully.
years, Kathy Lee Gifford had been netting ten million
dollars a year from her Wal-Mart clothing line, unaware
of any connection between her economic well-being and
the suffering of others. She was simply an entertainer
who associated her name with a line of clothing so that
a portion of the dollars raised could go toward helping
AIDS-infected and crack-addicted children in New
at a congressional hearing in April 1996, a witness from
the National Labor Committee, Charlie Kernaghan, offered
evidence of how Gifford and Wal-Mart had profited from
exploited child labor in Honduras.
Upon hearing the news, Kathy Lee lashed out against the
claim. On her daily television show, she broke into tears
and threatened to sue Kernaghan for slander. "It was nothing
less than an assault on my very soul when [Kernaghan charged]
that I was using the sweat of children to help children."
Later that week, she said that she hadn't known anything
about the production of her clothes in sweatshops and
blurted out, "I can't save the world!"
her defensiveness, Kathy Lee started asking tough questions
about the industry that had been so good for her family.
She even had dinner with U.S. Secretary of Labor Robert
Reich, who had long tried to focus public concern on the
issues of sweatshops and child labor. The issue hit home
hardest, though, when Kernaghan arranged for Wendy Diaz,
a fifteen-year-old seamstress who had worked on the Kathy
Lee Collection in Honduras, to appear at a press conference
hosted by U.S. Representative George Miller.
told the world about her life at the factory, "At Global
Fashion there are about 100 minors like me--thirteen,
fourteen, fifteen years old, some even twelve--earning
31 cents an hour. On the Kathy Lee pants, we were forced
to work almost every day from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sometimes
they kept us all night long, working until 6:30 a.m."
She spoke of the oppressive heat in the factory, the armed
guards at the doors, and how the girls suffered frequent
insults, violence, and sexual harassment by supervisors.
Wendy then made a direct appeal to Gifford, "If I could
talk with Kathy Lee, I would ask her to help us, to end
all the maltreatment, to let us go to night school, and
let us organize to protect our rights."
Lee met with Wendy less than a week later, at the residence
of Archbishop Cardinal O'Conner. After their talk, a visibly
moved Kathy Lee told reporters, "Wendy Diaz has a message
that compels every American consumer, every American manufacturer,
and every American citizen to ask, 'Under what conditions
are the products we buy being manufactured?'" She then
turned to Wendy and said, "I believe all children are
God's children. I had no idea what was happening, but
now that I know I will do everything I can to help you."
days after her meeting with Wendy, Kathy Lee traveled
to Wal-Mart's annual meeting and urged Wal-Mart executives
to pressure sub-contractors like Global Fashion to clean
up their plants, pay a fair wage, and submit to independent
monitoring by local human rights groups. She later added
that she would drop her endorsement of the Kathy Lee Collection
if she were not satisfied that her clothes were being
produced under decent working conditions. Kathy Lee also
announced that she was going to pay for third party monitoring
of all factories that produce her clothing--a program
to be completely independent of Wal-Mart's efforts.
the ensuing months, Kathy Lee also sought to change public
policy. She appeared with New York Governor George Pataki
to support state legislation that would crack down on
sweatshops. She testified before Congress in support of
national legislation that she believed "would bring the
full weight of the American government to bear on international
child-labor violations." She also spoke at the 1996 Fashion
Industry Forum which brought together retailers, manufacturers,
labor unions, and human rights groups to discuss how to
solve the sweatshop problem. In all these arenas, Kathy
Lee argued "each one of us, whether in Congress, in corporate
in a television studio, or in a shopping mall, has a moral
imperative to address this issue."
Lee Gifford's journey from denial to action has earned
her the respect of her old nemesis Charlie Kernaghan.
After accompanying Wendy Diaz to her meeting with Gifford,
Kernaghan said, "Kathy Lee hadn't a clue about how this
industry operated, but now I'll bet she'll make Wal-Mart
clean up its act. It confirms what I've always said: When
people hear these stories face to face, there is no other
response than decency and concern."
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