Group alleges labor abuse

Public employee uniform makers accused of dealing with sweatshops

July 03, 2008|By Lynn Anderson | Lynn Anderson,Sun reporter

The state of Maryland has contracts with at least four public employee uniform companies that allegedly use sweatshop labor to turn out inexpensive shirts, jackets and pants, according to a report by SweatFree Communities, a group that wants to create a consortium of federal, state and local governments that oppose such labor practices.

In the first report of its kind, SweatFree Communities reached out to workers in factories in China, Bangladesh, Honduras and several other nations to gauge working conditions. In factories in China, workers said they haven't been paid in months, the report said. In Bangladesh, workers said they are verbally abused and forced to work many extra hours. In Honduras, workers are so afraid of retribution that most refused to speak with interviewers, the report said.

Companies that do business with sweatshops in those countries, and also have contracts with Maryland public agencies, are the Bob Barker Co., Cintas Corp., Lion Apparel and Rocky Shoes, according to SweatFree Communities. The companies denied yesterday that they foster sweatshop labor practices.

The author of the report, Bjorn Claeson, said yesterday that it is unclear that clothing made in foreign sweatshops is coming to Maryland. However, he said it was troubling that the state does business with companies that do not treat their employees fairly.

"What we found was very abusive factory conditions everywhere we looked," Claeson said. "Sweatshops and severe labor violations are pervasive in the uniform industry."

Maryland Del. Joanne C. Benson, a Democrat from Prince George's County, introduced legislation during the 2008 General Assembly to require contractors doing business with the state to adhere to an anti-sweatshop code of conduct. However, a legislative committee watered down the bill with so many amendments that she and other sponsors decided to pull it. Benson said she would renew efforts to pass such legislation next year. She said she was hoping to meet with Gov. Martin O'Malley to discuss the legislation.

"I find it reprehensible that we are patronizing companies that are so disrespectful to workers," Benson said.

Company representatives defended their business practices yesterday. While some denied the existence of sweatshop tactics in factories with which they do business, others chose not to comment on the report and instead played up their firms' efforts to support human rights.

"Rocky Brands is committed to supporting human rights worldwide, and we expect the same from our business partners," said Brandon Puttbrese, a spokesman for Rocky Shoes. "As a condition of doing business, Rocky regularly audits all of our vendor facilities to ensure they are in compliance with our standards."

Bob Barker President Robert Barker Jr. said that that his company does business only with suppliers that "share our commitment to the health and safety of those working in this industry. We do not condone, and have never been involved with, any violation of labor laws."

A spokeswoman for Cintas said the company expects its vendors to adhere to a code of conduct that is more stringent than most local laws. "All of our vendors and suppliers are audited annually," said the spokeswoman, Heather Trainer.

Telephone calls to a representative for Lion Apparel were not returned.

A spokesman for the O'Malley administration said that the governor supported fair labor practices. "Any regulation that could help achieve that, he would certainly consider," said Shaun Adamec, an O'Malley spokesman.

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