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NICARAGUA: US Retailers Contract with Sweatshops

by Carrie AntlfingerAssociated Press
August 22nd, 2000

MILWAUKEE -- Rosa Esterlina Ocampo Gonzalez says she used to endure daily indignities simply to make cheap outfits for Americans.

The Nicaraguan woman recently worked for a sweatshop in her homeland that she says mistreated her and her fellow workers. After she tried to help form a union, she alleges she was fired.

Gonzalez was one of two workers invited Monday to recount conditions at two Nicaraguan factories that human rights, religious and labor groups claim supply Kohl's Department Stores with cheap garments.

''They mistreated us physically and verbally,'' said Gonzalez, 22, who worked at the American-owned Mil Colores plant. The second plant was identified as Tawainese-owned Chentex.

Kohl's spokeswoman Susan Henderson said the company sent independent auditors to Mil Colores this spring, and they did not find sweatshop conditions.

The company, based in Menomonee Falls, will be conducting another third-party audit of the factories, she said. Kohl's has 298 stores in 25 states.

The Chentex factory produces Sonoma jeans for Kohl's, and Mil Colores produces High Sierra, a label owned by the Target Corp., which owns Target Stores.

K-Mart spokeswoman Michele Jasukaitis said that chain also does business with Chentex and sent inspectors to the factory on a ''very regular basis.'' The company will look into the new allegations, she said.

Patty Morris, spokeswoman for Target Stores, says the company does business with Mil Colores and has done four audits on the factory in the last year, with the most recent in April.

''We found no evidence of abusive working conditions or overtime issues,'' Morris said.

Charles Kernaghan of the National Labor Committee of New York, a nonprofit group that focuses on workers' rights worldwide, said workers at the sweatshops have been verbally and physically abused, live on ''starvation'' wages and work more than 90-hour weeks.

Nicaraguan workers sewing jeans for Kohl's are paid $65 a month and live in ''utter misery,'' Kernaghan said. He said many work as many as 50 hours overtime, added to the 47.5 hours week.

Kernaghan said he was not seeking any boycotts and did not want production moved out of Nicaragua, but he wants Kohl's to ''have respect for human rights.''

Gladys del Carmen Manzanarez, 52, said she was one of more than 600 people fired after walking out for an hour to protest Chentex's refusal to raise the wage per garment by 8 cents.

She alleges Chentex is circulating names to other factories so the workers can't get jobs. If workers made a mistake, they would get a ''knock'' in the head and be called horses or mules, Manzanarez said.

Catholic Bishop Thomas Gumbleton, from Detroit, and other religious leaders from Milwaukee and New York went to Nicaragua and met the two women fired from Chentex and Mil Colores.

''I saw firsthand the dire situation of those who work in Nicaragua,'' Gumbleton said. ''I deplore and denounce what is happening in these sweatshops.''

Kernaghan said his group planned to keep pressure on Kohl's by visiting stores nationwide, carrying banners, chanting in stores and handing out leaflets, among other things.

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