Chicago students protest Sears ties to child labor and rape

CHICAGO - Chicago-area high school students are protesting Sears's purchase of clothing from a Jordanian factory where a supervisor from Sri Lanka has been an unpunished serial rapist of young female "guest workers," also from Sri Lanka.

The Youth Labor Committee's protest, and an accompanying online petition, follows publication of an 82-page report on conditions at the Classic Fashion factory complex at Jordan's Al Hassan Industrial Estate, a zone where factories may produce duty-free exports to the U.S. market under the U.S.-Jordan Free Trade Agreement.

The report, by Charles Kernaghan's Institute for Global Labor and Human Rights, includes videotaped and translated testimony from at least one woman, who told how the supervisor would take four or five of them at a time, after hours, to his hotel and rape them. He warned them to be quiet or face immediate deportation to and ostracism back in Sri Lanka. There, traditional customs make them unmarriageable pariahs.

The high school students, who live in the Chicago suburbs, plan to target that retailer by informational leaflet distribution at Sears' store in downtown Chicago every Saturday or every Sunday until the firm responds, says their social science teacher, Bruce Taylor of Dundee-Crown High School in Carpentersville, Ill. "It's always been our goal to work with Sears in correcting this problem," Taylor e-mailed.

Meanwhile, quoting Classic's own website, Kernaghan said the firm's biggest output is in goods labeled "Danskin Now" for Wal-Mart, "Champion" of Hanes underwear for Target, "Style & Co" for Macy's and "Sonoma" for Kohl's. Wal-Mart accounts for the largest proportion of production at Classic, Kernaghan said.

The rape and sexual abuse has been going on since at least 2007, the report says. But, other than removing the manager from his post for a month after 2,400 Sri Lankan women struck to demand his dismissal, nothing was done until Kernaghan's report prompted the Jordanian Labor Ministry to launch an investigation in late August. Before that, it certified the factory complex met international labor rights standards. In June, with Steelworkers support, Kernaghan traveled to Jordan to try to rescue at least some Sri Lankan female guest workers from the 3,000-worker complex.

Besides the rapes, the report also describes terrible conditions at the Classic complex. "The standard shift at Classic is 13 hours a day, six and seven days a week, with some 18½-hour shifts before the clothing must be shipped to the U.S.," the report says. "According to witness testimonies, workers are routinely cursed at, hit, and shortchanged of their wages for failing to reach their mandatory production goals. To press the women to work faster, managers grope and fondle them," a summary says.

"The workers, who are from Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, India, Nepal and Egypt, earn a take-home wage of just 61 cents an hour. Workers are housed in primitive dorms lacking heat or hot water, but which are infested with bed bugs.

"The women have extremely limited freedom of movement and are allowed to leave the factory compound just one day a week for six hours. When they are forced to work through their weekly holiday, they may be allowed out just once or twice a month.

"Minimal efforts of Wal-Mart, Hanes and the other labels to monitor factory conditions at Classic have failed completely. Workers are threatened by management and forced to say that conditions are good," Kernaghan's report summarized.

When the story ran in Sri Lankan papers, many comments abused that nation's government for not sticking up for its own citizens, the female workers.

The Chicago-area students took the information, also summarized in an online petition circulated by the activist group change.org, and used it for leafleting outside Sears' State Street store. Protests are also planned at other retailers, change.org said.

"It is horrible that these women have no means of escape from these working conditions, and are even terrified to publicly discuss what is happening to them out of fear for their lives and the lives of their families," Dickie Schaefer, a high school student who helped organize the Chicago protest, told change.org. "We are demanding these corporations stand with us and demand the establishment of a safe and prosperous working environment, free from the terrors of rape, enslavement, and captivity."

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