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A Conversation with Charlie Kernaghan


Charlie Kernaghan at a United Steelworkers event in 2008. - PHOTO COURTESY OF UNITED STEELWORKERS
  • Photo courtesy of United Steelworkers
  • Charlie Kernaghan at a United Steelworkers event in 2008.

In the 1980s, Charlie Kernaghan had his master's degree in psychology, was teaching at Duquesne University and pursuing his doctorate. Then he decided to move to New York and experience life. He drove a cab and found an interest in photography. In 1985 he went on a peace march through Central America and discovered horrible conditions in sweatshops there. Since then, he has worked to shed light on poor labor conditions in third-world countries and to show how U.S. corporations foster them. He is the executive director of the National Labor Committee in Support of Human and Worker Rights and is famous for exposing child-labor sweatshops that produced the Kathie Lee Gifford clothing line sold at Wal-Mart. Kernaghan will speak at 1 p.m. Sat., April 18, at the Mount Lebanon Library, 16 Castle Shannon Blvd., as part of the library's globalization series.


How has the landscape of sweatshops changed in the past two decades?
It's definitely a little better since we started to expose some of these cases in places like Honduras and Bangladesh. When we first started, there was a lot of child labor, and that of course broke open with the incident involving Kathie Lee Gifford crying on television and threatening to sue me. In that case, you had 12- and 13-year-old kids working 12 hours a day, seven days a week for pitifully low wages. And unfortunately, a lot of those kids were also abused and fondled; it was some really sick stuff. But thankfully, because Kathie Lee wasn't smart enough to not keep crying and screaming on TV every day, it turned child labor into a national story. Eventually, child labor became the third rail, and no U.S. company wants to touch it.

What kind of problems are we seeing today?
We're still seeing some child labor, but nothing like in the past. Today we're seeing women suffer horribly in these factories. Many of these places are like minimum-security prisons. We're still seeing pitifully low wages and a complete lack of workers' rights. Many women are beaten if they talk back to their bosses, and they're fired if they try and exercise basic rights like [taking] sick days or maternity leave. Now, with the economic downturn, things are even worse. Stores are offering even deeper discounts, and the only way you can do that is to squeeze the worker even more. So, have we come a long way? Yes. But we still have a long way to go, and we've got to keep fighting until we get it right.

A lot of companies talk about how important globalization is for our future. But how much is globalization causing the problem?
You've got workers in Bangladesh making 11 cents an hour, and we wonder why there are no garment jobs here in the U.S. Nissan is paying engineers 96 cents an hour in Vietnam and the Ford Fiesta is assembled in Mexico for $2.50 an hour. We have let the global economy get way out of control, and we are getting locked into a race for the bottom and nobody is going to win that race except for big business. Corporations want to say it's about business, but it's a moral issue. No one should be beaten or cheated out of their wages in the name of globalization. And I do believe as things worsen this will become one of the major issues facing our nation.

Where is the front on this war? Is it at the factory level or the corporate level?
It's here, because who gives a heck about the developing world? These companies are smart. If you go into a Wal-Mart and ask where the factories are that make their products, they won't tell you. That's because they are the leaders in this race to the bottom, and their products are made all over the world in places with low wages and no workers' rights. They say they won't release it because of competition, but that's baloney. They don't want the American people to see the conditions of factories where they are making their goods. Companies like Wal-Mart and Nike take their products and move them as far away as possible from the young women who made their products for 19 cents an hour. If we don't give these workers a voice, nothing is ever going to change for them.

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