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The Blood Behind Those Bargains.

Ever wonder if the shirt you're buying was made by a child? Retailers know, but they won't tell unless we make them.

Elementary special education teacher Kerry Clock is nagged by his conscience when he coaches soccer in Concord, New Hampshire. "I just don't know where the balls on the field came from and under what conditions they were produced," he says. "I can't help but wonder if some child in Pakistan is being denied an education because he's forced to work long hours stitching those soccer balls."

Out in Portland, Oregon, Franklin High School global studies/history teacher Bill Bigelow shares Clock's concern for the lives behind the goods we buy.

Bigelow teaches a unit on child labor. He begins by placing a soccer ball in the middle of the classroom and asks students to describe it.

Their first attempt is just a bland physical description of the sphere.

Then this NEA member reads aloud Berthold Brecht's poem,"A Worker Reads History." The poem, says Bigelow, essentially "asks about the lives of people who make things we take for granted."

Next, the teacher asks kids to look at the soccer ball "more deeply" and describe it again. Suddenly, the ball's country of origin, Pakistan, takes on meaning, and several students write about who may have made the ball, and under what conditions.

"Kids are concerned about sweatshops," notes Bigelow, whose classes inspired one athlete to research the origins of soccer balls in all of Franklin High's feeder schools. "Nobody wants to use or wear stuff made in wretched conditions."

Least of all New Hampshire's Kerry Clock, who, as a delegate to the NEA Representative Assembly in 1998, asked the over 9,500 other delegates to give an Association endorsement to the national "People's Right to Know Campaign" against child labor and sweatshops.

This drive, coordinated by two human rights organizations, the National Labor Committee and the People of Faith Network, is not a boycott. It's a call that asks corporations to disclose the names and addresses of factories producing the goods we buy--especially clothing and shoes--so that pay and conditions in those plants can be monitored by independent human rights or religious groups.

This disclosure won't come without a fight. Contractors for huge U.S. retailers often operate secretly in factories without signs, shielded from scrutiny by locked gates and armed security guards.

Retailers claim that factory names and addresses are "proprietary" information and that their vendor "codes of conduct" already protect workers.

The sad reality is that these codes are weak and poorly enforced.

Wal-Mart, for instance, uses its own buyers to monitor its "vendor-partner" plants and boasts that factory workers can use an 800 number to "report possible violation of Wal-Mart's vendor standards directly to Wal-Mart."

But phone calls have been few from the Bangladesh plant making Wal-Mart shirts, where vendor standards were never posted. The National Labor Committee reports that sewing machine operators there are illegally paid just $16 for a forced 80-hour workweek--$20 below the legal rate of $36.96.

These workers are denied maternity leave and health care, are harassed to meet quotas, and are forbidden from unionizing.

If any of this disturbs you, you can make a difference. Here's how to start:

* Participate in the People's Right to Know Campaign's Season of Conscience.

This holiday season, campaign organizers are applying widespread and persistent pressure on Wal-Mart, the largest U.S. retailer, to disclose the names and addresses of the factories that fill Wal-Mart's aisles. The pressure will range from letters to Wal-Mart CEO David Glass to storefront protests on Human Rights Day, December 9.

Last year, on Human Rights Day, Will Thomas, a social studies/American history teacher in Manchester, New Hampshire, leafleted a local Wal-Mart along with a retired teacher and students from Central High School's Amnesty International group.

"Some shoppers were surprised," this NEA member recalls, "that Wal-Mart sells goods produced in sweatshops with child labor. I leafleted the store because I teach children, and I'm concerned about children's welfare."

* Get your school district and municipality to adopt a full disclosure policy for the goods they buy. You can find a model procurement policy/ordinance at the National Labor Committee Web site (

* Encourage students to think about where products are made.

"We're all part of the human family," stresses New Hampshire teacher Will Thomas. "If children know where things are made, they'll be more concerned about their shopping habits and more concerned about child labor and the welfare of others."

"So much clothing is bought by young people," adds National Labor Committee staffer Margaret Gray. "It will make an impact on retailers if kids who are concerned about labels are also concerned about worker rights."

Facts & Figures

With $7.6 billion in annual operating profits, Wal-Mart is richer than 155 countries.

Yet contractors making clothing for Wal-Mart pay only:

* 12 cents an hour in China.

* 20 cents an hour in Bangladesh.

* 43 cents an hour in Honduras.

* $2.05 an hour in the U.S. territory of Saipan.

Source: National Labor Committee (

For more on the People's Right to Know Campaign, E-mail the National Labor Committee at or check on the Web. For resources on sweatshops and globalization, go to sites of the Campaign for Labor Rights ( ~agj/clr/index.html) and the Network of Educators on the Americas (
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Article Details
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Title Annotation:protesting child labor practices; disclosure of product origin
Publication:NEA Today
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Nov 1, 1999
Previous Article:Heroes & Zeroes.

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