My friend Erin tried to clue in her teenage sister Denise about Nikes. A lot of people won't buy Nikes, Erin said, because they're made with child labor. A lot of people don't like 14-year-old girls working 12-hour days, for $2.28 a day, so Nike president Phil Knight and Michael Jordan can be rich.
Denise wasn't impressed. "If the shoes are cool, what can you do?"
Some consumers, however, would like to know that the workers making the things they buy aren't being treated like dirt.
This month, these discerning consumers are observing a "Holiday Season of Conscience." They're targeting Wal-Mart, which -- with sales in 1997 totaling $118 billion -- is the largest retailer on the globe. Through subcontractors, it's also likely the world's largest employer of sweatshop workers.
The New York-based People's Right to Know Campaign is asking Wal-Mart to reveal which factories it uses so third-party observers can inspect the conditions there.
At a recent talk in Detroit, campaign organizer Charles Kernaghan points to plenty of evidence of how sweatshop workers are mistreated.
Advertisements from apparel industry magazines urge manufacturers to set up shop in El Salvador, where docile "Rosa" will work for 33 cents an hour. Poster-size photos show Salvadoran sweatshops ringed with barbed wire.
When 15-year-old Wendy Diaz, a Honduran sweatshop worker, met with Kathie Lee Gifford in New York, she told the millionaire what it's like to make 31 cents an hour sewing blouses for Gifford's clothing line. Diaz explained how she and her coworkers go to bed hungry, have supervisors throw garments in their faces and call them "shithead," and aren't allowed to go to the bathroom. When Gifford was first confronted about sweatshops, on her TV show, she cried.
Recently, Gifford and other companies signed an agreement to curb use of children under 15, to ban forced labor and to pay at least the local minimum wage. Activists say the reforms are not nearly enough.
Kernaghan holds up two Kathie Lee blouses, one made in Mexico, one in the United States. The blouses are identical, but one was sewn by a worker earning $8.42 an hour; the other wage rate was 50 cents an hour. Who pocketed the difference? he asks.
"If Wal-Mart would charge you a dollar more for a blouse, that doesn't mean the worker in that factory would get that dollar," Wal-Mart spokesperson Betsy Reithemeyer tells the Metro Times. "That's not realistic, it's not even economically conceptual. ... Just because you can make an apple pie in your house for five bucks, and sell it in Europe for $25 where they don't have apples, by that logic they would say you're being greedy. But that's the marketplace."
In China, young women who make handbags for Wal-Mart live in a dormitory and earn as little as 12.5 cents an hour -- $3.44 a week after the company deducts the cost of rent and rice gruel. It's estimated Wal-Mart has used 700 to 1,000 factories in China alone.
Kernaghan's group has tracked down some of the sweatshops, which takes effort because the companies claim the locations of the plants they use are trade secrets.
But competitors often contract out to the same factories: Nike and Adidas, Kathie Lee and Ann Taylor, clothes for Kmart and Wal-Mart are assembled side by side.
The People's Right to Know Campaign thinks that shedding the light of day on conditions in Wal-Mart's factories is the first step toward getting the companies to change their practices.
"How can the American consumer shop with a conscience," Kernaghan asks, "when we don't even have the right to know in what factories and countries, under what human rights conditions and at what wages the products we're buying were made?"
It's not that Wal-Mart's sweatshops are any different from those of other companies such as Disney, Guess or Nike, says Kernaghan. But since Wal-Mart is the biggest, moving Wal-Mart in the right direction would affect the whole apparel industry.
He says there's been "a sea change in the attitude of the American people" since various groups began publicizing what goes on in sweatshops. For example, student groups on 50 campuses have pressured universities not to buy their gear from sweatshops.
"In the 1980s, companies would admit all these violations, and they didn't care," says Kernaghan. "They passed the buck. They can't get away with that anymore."
An official from the UN's International Labor Organization says nowhere in the world are companies under such pressure from consumers as in the United States.
"We're not asking for a boycott," Kernaghan emphasizes. "The workers there don't want to lose their jobs -- miserable as they are. All we want is for the companies to answer some very serious questions over where these products are made, in which countries, in which factories, under what conditions, at what wages, under what human rights conditions.
"This terrifies the companies," he says. "If you get them talking, you win, because they don't have a leg to stand on."
Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.