When 28 cents is too much

In the land of amusement, where seriousness is typically confined to the pursuit of fun or profit, a group of peace advocates held daily protests last week urging the Walt Disney Co. to join the campaign to preserve the jobs of Haitians who produce Disney merchandise. The Christian Peacemaker Teams led the protests/prayer vigils on the sidewalk along International Drive outside the Orange County Convention Center, the site of the North American Biennial Conference of the Mennonite Church that drew more than 6,000 people. From Tuesday to Saturday, about 40 supporters spent their mornings waving placards mixing Bible verses and anti-Disney slogans at passing motorists. "It's a little testy to go into Orlando. They didn't even know about the issue," said Gene Stoltzfus, director of the group formed in 1988 by Mennonite and Church of the Brethren organizations. Yet Stoltzfus was pleasantly surprised by the local reaction. The protesters weren't confronted by police, and "We found a lot more support than we expected. Quite a few people tooted their horns." Christian Peacemaker Teams wants Disney to stand up for workers "threatened with violence in their efforts to gain a living wage" by L.V. Myles, one of 13 factories in the Haitian capital of Port-Au-Prince that produce Disney garments. The workers are paid 28 cents an hour to produce clothes that sell for 50 times as much. And this wage rate is to be cut in half by another contractor, H.H. Cutler Co., which plans to ship thousands of jobs from Haiti to China, according to the National Labor Committee, the advocacy group that exposed the New York sweatshops where Kathie Lee Gifford's apparel line was being produced. "I don't know if the fundamental issue of relocation is wages. Probably in the long run, they see China's going to keep the lid on, that the U.S. isn't going to do much in terms of human rights," Stoltzfus said. "(In China, Cutler) can get away with almost anything they want." In a letter to the National Labor Committee, Cutler President Thomas F. Austin says "the cessation of our contracted production in Haiti is due solely to the fact that our sales of the kinds of products manufactured in these facilities has declined sharply." Austin told a newspaper in Grand Rapids, Mich., that Cutler decided to concentrate its operations in China, the Phillipines, Pakistan and Indonesia, where factories handle everything from buying and cutting fabric to finishing the garments (The Haitian facilities are limited to assembly). Regardless of the reason, the move would result in the loss of 2,300 jobs in an impoverished Haitian city where jobs are a precious commodity. "They're not great jobs. You take what's there," said Stoltzfus. "We can't afford to see these companies come and go." In moving to stop Cutler, the National Labor Committee will lead a coalition of organizations sponsoring a "National Day of Conscience to End Sweatshop Abuses" on Oct. 4, beginning a "Holiday of Conscience" during which shoppers will be encouraged to shun goods sold by Disney and other companies associated with worker abuses. Disney has adopted a Code of Corporate Conduct which requires contractors to pay fair wages and refrain from employing children or forcing, coercing or harassing workers. The companies must submit to audits by Disney to ensure these conditions are met. These standards, adopted in February in response to shareholder requests, would appear to be a step in the right direction. But they are vague and general. For example, Disney requires contractors to comply with all wage and hour laws and regulations. But in countries such as Haiti and China, employment regulations are undeveloped or nonexistent. Ken Green, a spokesman for The Walt Disney Co., said Disney had no control over the plight of the Haitian workers left jobless by the move: "Cutler arrived at the decision independently of Walt Disney." Asked whether Disney would join in urging Cutler to stay in Haiti, Green said, "Are they suggesting Disney go in there and tell other companies what to do?" There is at least one company taking a more progressive approach: 10,000 Villages, a Pennsylvania-based nonprofit which contracts with artisans in Haiti, other Latin American countries, Africa and Asia. Formed 51 years ago by a Mennonite woman who sold the handicrafts from her trunk, 10,000 Villages sold $12 million in merchandise at 200 stores across the U.S. in 1996. While unable to provide an hourly wage, company officials provided this example: They pay artisans in Croix de Bouqets, Haiti, $3.50 to $15 for each piece of cut metal, pounded and bent from abandoned 55-gallon drums into picture or mirror frames painted with native designs. Rather than going directly into the artists' pockets, the money is used to purchase medicine, educational materials or housing improvements for the farming community. "We understand everybody needs a job. People do things because they are desperate and need jobs," said spokesman Larry Guengerich. And there is the obvious cultural value. "Instead of producing for a mass-merchandise culture, they're producing something of their own culture," Stoltzfus said. But the closest store carrying the Haitian handicrafts is in Sarasota. Clothes emblazoned with a variety of Disney's iconic characters can be found practically everywhere. Last week, while the Mennonites were working to help the Haitians, Disney was announcing a new dimension of its 10-year "global alliance" with McDonald's. The net gain for the world: two McDonald's and test marketing of its french fries at Disney World; exclusive sponsorship of the Dinoland section of Disney's Animal Kingdom theme park and McDonald's food at the theme park's largest restaurant; and a McDonald's and company sponsorship of the railroad at Disneyland Paris.


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