Behind the designer labels, a world of exploitation and abuse
Friday 24 September 1999
The disclosures will dent the image of the fashion industry, which has been on show in London this week. In contrast to the overt luxury and self- congratulation around the catwalks, The Independent can reveal the misery behind some of the most famous labels.
Our investigation focused on the Pacific island of Saipan, which has become a centre for producing clothes sold under such names as the Gap, Ralph Lauren and Tommy Hilfiger.
It is a United States commonwealth with the status of a dependent territory but firms brand goods produced there as "Made in America". US labour laws are flouted, say workers. The factories employ 13,000 workers, mainly women from China, who are often lured with the promise that they will be working in America. But they find themselves in Saipan, one of the North Mariana islands, 1,000 miles from the Philippines and 6,000 from the US mainland.
They have to sign tough work and behaviour contracts. and pay fees to the men who recruit them of pounds 2,000. Some said their families in China would be threatened or jailed if they failed to make the payments or if they complained.
The women work up to 14 hours a day in cramped, hot, and unsafe conditions and live in vermin-infested "barracks" with inadequate water for drinking and washing.
The Independent spoke to a worker who said she had been forced to abort her baby after being told she would be sent back to China if she did not.
Machine workers we spoke to confirmed they had helped to make goods The Independent bought over the counter in Britain. One identified a Tommy Hilfiger shirt on sale here for pounds 40, saying she believed its factory-gate price was pounds 3.
Designers buy the goods through companies often based in Hong Kong. Labels on items sold here by brands such as Ralph Lauren, Liz Claiborne and the Gap said they were "Made in the North Mariana Islands, USA". Gymboree confirmed it sold Saipan clothes in Britain labelled "Made in the USA." The Hilfiger shirt was labelled "Made in Saipan." Saipan goods can be shipped to the US without quotas or tariffs.From there, some clothes are shipped to Britain.
Campaigners are urging new rules to govern imports. They want firms selling brand names to be held accountable for conditions in which they are made, through clearer labelling and better information for consumers. Action is being taken against manufacturers on the island: 250 current and former foreign workers are suing their employers and US fashion houses.
The workers accuse manufacturers, contractors and retailers of benefiting from their forced labour and indentured servitude.
Ralph Lauren Polo, Donna Karan and Gymboree have agreed in principle to pay damages to the workers via a US firm of lawyers, but without admitting liability.
The Gap, OshKosh B'Gosh and Tommy Hilfiger are still involved in the case, while Liz Claiborne has been involved in pre-litigation talks but has not been served with a writ. Tommy Hilfiger says it is scaling down its Saipan production and Liz Claiborne says it is working to improve conditions. A statement by the Gap said: "We work every day to resolve manufacturing-related concerns ... fair and respectful treatment of workers is an essential ingredient in our relationship with the independent vendors that make our products." Ralph Lauren, OshKosh B'Gosh and Donna Karan made no further comment.
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