U.S. lawmakers are considering legislation that would bar U.S. companies from profiting from the use of foreign sweatshops and other unfair labor practices abroad. A Senate panel conducted a hearing on the issue Wednesday, as VOA's Deborah Tate reports from Capitol Hill.
Members of a Senate subcommittee heard first hand from those who witnessed abuses at overseas factories that produce goods for U.S. companies.
Sk Nazma is a former textile worker in Bangladesh, who - along with the labor rights group, Bangladesh Workers' Solidarity Center - has been investigating the labor practices of a company called Harvest Rich in that country, where clothing is sewn for the U.S. firms, Walmart, Haynes, and J.C. Penney.
When she began the research in June, she discovered that hundreds of children, some as young as 11 years old, were illegally working at Harvest Rich, sometimes for up to 20 hours a day.
"Before clothing shipments had to leave for the United States, there are often mandatory 19 to 20-hour shifts from 8:00 a.m. to 3:00 or 4:00 a.m," she said. "The workers would sleep on the factory floor for a few hours before getting up for their next shift in the morning. If they did anything wrong, they were beaten every day."
She said the workers were often on the job seven days a week, with only two days off a month. They were paid $3.20 a week.
Betty Fuentes, a worker in Colombia's flower industry, was employed at a plant owned by the U.S. company Dole. She talked about workers being exposed to hazardous pesticides, the firing of sick workers, forced pregnancy testing for women and strong-arm union busting tactics by companies. She also spoke through a translator.
"Workers in Colombia's flower industry are faced with low wages, long working hours and poor and illegal company practices," she noted.
Charles Kernaghan, executive director of the National Labor Committee, an advocacy group that focuses on worker rights, told the committee he is particularly concerned about labor practices in Jordan and China.
He said in Jordan, which signed a Free Trade Agreement with the United States in 2001, tens of thousands of guest workers from China, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and India are employed in factories for long hours with little or no pay. Many of them are children. He described the situation at one particular plant, which makes clothing for the world's largest retailer, the U.S.-based Walmart company:
"At the Western garment factory, which made fleece jackets for Walmart, there were 14 or 15-year-old kids working 18 or 20 hour shifts," he said. "They worked from 8:00 in the morning until midnight or until 4:00 a.m. And they did this seven days a week. They did not get paid for first four months of 2006, they did not receive one cent in wages. They were working as slave labor. When they passed out they were struck by rulers to wake them up. There were four girls who were raped by management."
Kernaghan says the Jordanian government, under pressure from labor rights groups, has taken steps to improve the situation, particularly in the larger factories. But he said some smaller factories continue to have labor violations.
Kernaghan said many factories in China that produce goods for U.S. export also employ workers for long hours and for little pay, and often under dangerous conditions. He recounted incidents where workers at a factory that makes furniture parts lost fingers and hands in equipment, but the company refused to compensate the victims.
In an effort to crackdown on sweatshop practices, the chairman of the Commerce subcommittee, Democratic Senator Byron Dorgan of North Dakota, is sponsoring legislation that would allow U.S. firms to sue competitors whom they believe are selling imported products made in such factories.
"I do think that companies that decide to import products into this country should not be allowed to gain an unfair advantage by deliberately sourcing from sweatshop factories that abuse workers abroad," he said.
James English of the United Steelworkers Union, says the legislation is a step in the right direction.
"You cannot have a level playing field when American workers are asked to compete against forced labor," he explained. "You cannot have a level playing field when American workers are asked to compete against persons who are required to work long hours without getting paid."
But Daniel Griswold, director of the Center for Trade Policy Studies at the Cato Institute in Washington, sees it differently. He argues that freer trade, not the legislation proposed by Senator Dorgan, will improve workers' rights overseas.
"So-called sweatshop conditions persist in poor countries today, not because of globalization, which is a relatively new phenomenon, but because of poverty, poverty perpetuated by their own governments' failed policies of protectionism, inflation, corruption, hostility to foreign investment, and lack of legally defined property rights," he said. "Globalization is not the cause of bad working conditions, but the best hope of improving them."
Senator Jim DeMint, a South Carolina Republican, agrees.
"While there are sweatshops which we need to look at, Mr. Chairman, certainly many jobs have been provided around the world by American companies buying products from all over the world," he explained. "We want to make sure that as we attempt to stamp out bad actors that we do not eliminate jobs for many low-income workers around the world by creating undue liability and risk for companies who have products made abroad."
Senator Dorgan says there will be additional Senate hearings on overseas' sweatshop practices in the coming weeks.