IF YOU LIVE in Minneapolis, you can get a nice basic jacket at the Gap for under $50. If you live in El Salvador, you can sew the same garment for about 50 cents an hour. If you live in St. Paul and used to make coats (not necessarily for the Gap), you're probably drawing unemployment now.
Those are the basic facts of the global marketplace, and most of the time they're easy to ignore. Few Minneapolis shoppers will ever hear of, much less see, the places where their togs are made, places like the Progreso free-trade zone outside San Salvador. It's a sprawling complex behind a fence and security gate, where recycled yellow school buses each morning discharge crowds of young women in front of factories employing tens of thousands.
One of the biggest factories is called Manderin International, where investigations by El Salvador's Catholic Archdiocese and the country's human-rights agency have documented what are gently termed "labor rights violations." Women, many of them underage, work in stiflingly hot conditions, the agencies reported; when the factory fails to meet production goals they must stay overtime with no more pay than "a cookie and a soda." Access to the bathroom is strictly rationed, to the point where some workers develop kidney problems from holding it in all day. And the pay is 56 cents an hour.
The story broke in the U.S. this summer after the Miranda factory fired some 300 workers who had tried to organize a union. A U.S. coalition called the National Labor Committee took up their cause, and latched onto one of Mandarin's biggest customers, the Gap. The campaign has been going on for months, but kicked into high gear for the holidays; on the shopping-intensive day after Thanksgiving, activists handed leaflets to Gap patrons at the uptown and downtown Minneapolis stores. (Most others are in malls, where security guards quickly pounce on any hint of political expression.) "A Holiday Message from The Real Gap Kids," the fliers were headlined.
Some of the leafletters were members of the Northern District Joint Board of the textile-workers union UNITE, who follow the story with a particular sort of recognition. Just a couple months ago, more than 35 union workers lost their jobs when a St. Paul shop named B.W. Harris closed down its last cutting and sewing lines. Once five plants strong in Minnesota and the Dakotas, making men's jackets and top coats under labels like Brooks Brothers, Harris began switching to imports some 13 years ago. Now the last plant is nothing but a distribution center for foreign-made coats.
The story is played out similarly all over the place. There's hardly a brand name anymore that doesn't buy from low-wage factories employing almost exclusively women. In addition to the Gap, the Mandarin plant has contracted with Eddie Bauer, Liz Claiborne, J.C. Penney, and others. Closer to home, self-styled corporate saint Dayton Hudson Corp.was recently named in a lawsuit filed by 68 California sweatshop workers whom the U.S. Department of Labor found to be slaves in all but name.
Companies' responses to the problem vary. B.W. Harris's application for federal Trade Adjustment Assistance for workers affected by cheap-labor competition (instituted in the scramble for passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement) has a slightly desperate tone, noting that "we are what's left of a 78-year-old U.S. outerwear manufacturer." Dayton Hudson's answer to the sweatshop allegations has been strictly defiant: Its stores, the company has said, never sold a single stitch made at the offending plant.
The Gap started out by pointing to its "strict sourcing policies" and "extensive investigations" when the Mandarin matter first came up. "The factory treats its workers well, and meets our standards of fairness and decency," company Vice President Stanley Ruggio wrote to critics back in September. "Thanks for taking the time to share your concerns. We share them deeply." Two months later, a week before Thanksgiving, the company officially removed Mandarin from its supplier list.
Which, not surprisingly, leaves the critics only feeling buoyed. Richard Metcalf, director of the UNITE joint board, says more Gap leafletting is planned through the holidays, and more targets may be added down the road. To a labor crowd dominated by middle-aged folks, Metcalf says the biggest surprise so far has been the response from teenagers on their way into the store: They hang around for a while, "a little shy at first," then ask questions, and finally grab a pack of leaflets to hand out. "We're getting a lot of response from people who are basically the same age or older as the women who make this clothing."
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss City Pages' biggest stories.