More Than Money
Issue #15
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The Human Side of Investing

Table of Contents

“The Kathy Lee Gifford Story”

When 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.

For 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 York.

Then, 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!"

Despite 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.

Diaz 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."

Kathy 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."

Two 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.

Over 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 America, in a television studio, or in a shopping mall, has a moral imperative to address this issue."

Kathy 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."

--Steve Chase

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