Under a page headlined “Sweatshop Free Stories” on American Apparel’s website is a video profile of a young Honduran man, Heber Lopez, a garment worker at one of the factories in San Antonio, Honduras responsible for producing the retailer’s clothing.
Lopez recounts his hardscrabble life story, the death of his mother when he was nine, a close brush with drug involvement after struggling to find work. “His options in life were limited,” reads the caption alongside the video – until he found a job at a factory owned by Gildan Activewear, a giant clothing manufacturer that acquired American Apparel for $88m earlier this year.
Once one of the largest apparel producers in the US, American Apparel has long been known for its “Made in USA” trademark, its sometimes controversial advertising aesthetic and its commitment to manufacturing clothes in sweatshop-free facilities. But after a string of scandals related to its founder and former chief executive Dov Charney, and years of financial troubles the brand was auctioned off to Gildan Activewear, an American Canadian manufacturer whose factories are located primarily in Central America and the Caribbean.
American Apparel then reopened as an online-only retailer, and by February, it swapped its “Made in USA” mantra with the phrase “Globally-Sourced,” as most of its apparel is now sourced from factories based in Central America, primarily in Honduras.
Still, American Apparel maintains all their products remain ethically made and sweatshop free, claiming its goal is to “give more ethical jobs to more people around the world” in the Sweatshop Free Stories section of its website. But while the story of Heber Lopez might seem uplifting, many claim that the reality for garment workers is far from the glossy facade it has projected since Gildan acquired the company nine months ago.
Ingrid Alicia Benitez, a 39-year-old mother of four, was one of 1,800 garment workers who were left jobless after four years of working at Gildan’s El-Progreso factory in 2004. Her job there was to inspect garments for any defects, and with a quota of 6,000 inspections per day – every second of her day was accounted for. For Ingrid, that meant a maximum of 10 minutes for lunch each day. It meant avoiding restroom visits unless absolutely necessary. It also meant pushing herself to go to work, regardless of how sick she was feeling that day.
“If we fell short of the quota, our supervisor would threaten us by asking: Do you want to be here tomorrow, or not?” she said.
But Ingrid needed to support her family, and so, she stayed. By her third year, she had developed consistent muscle pains and a bad cough that she says was widespread amongst garment workers who suffered from the fumes coming from the machinery. By the end of her fourth year, she was let go as part of a mass termination that took place when Gildan shut down its El Progreso plant in order to suppress a unionization effort amongst employees who had banded together to complain about labor rights violations occurring at the factory.
The list of complaints included mandatory work shifts longer than the legal maximum limit, illegal dismissals of employees involved in unions – including the dismissal of a pregnant woman, as well as consistent harassment and verbal abuse targeted at employees.
“The image that Gildan Activewear presents to the world is well-crafted. But we have six organized worker unions from Gildan factories, and they all have health problems,” said María Luisa Regalado, director of CODEMUH: The Honduran Women’s Collective, an organization which advocates for better living and working conditions for women in garment factories. “Many of the workers have developed disabilities due to health problems acquired on the job – the hours, high productions goals, and other problems that stem from the lack of studies on the health implications of working in these positions,” she said. Over the years, Regalado and her staff at CODEMUH have worked with dozens of women to address labor rights violations that have taken place in Gildan’s facilities.
“In my experience, Gildan is one of the worst companies as far as labor exploitation goes,” said Regalado.
While Ingrid’s experience with Gildan happened over a decade ago, the reality for some women who have worked there more recently is not so different. Just last November, five women came to CODEMUH’s offices in Choloma, Honduras, claiming they were fired for developing health problems incurred while on the job at Gildan’s San Miguel facility.
In the dismissal letters issued by Gildan to each woman, almost identical in nature and issued just five days apart, the company informs Paola, another woman named Rosa, Santa, Maria and Aracely that they are being permanently dismissed, and that there is no other position they can be relocated to within Gildan’s facilities due to the medical issues they’ve incurred. The women, whose health issues range from chronic tendonitis in the arms and shoulders, myalgia in the neck and a number of degenerative spinal disorders, were all left without a job, or the ability to work in another factory due to their health troubles.
In a letter addressed to Gildan’s chief executive Glenn Chamandy, eight labor organizations from Germany and Switzerland came together to express their disagreement with the dismissals and to criticize conditions at Gildan’s factories, writing: “You have full knowledge of the work-related illnesses that your workers suffer from. It is NOT fair for you to harm them, and then discard them as if they are objects at your disposal.”
Gary Bell, vice-president of communications at Gildan, said Gildan has a strong labor compliance program and has steadily worked with labor unions to address any issue brought to its attention. According to him, the parallels between Gildan’s brand and that of American Apparel are pretty straightforward. “Our corporate social responsibility program is an assurance that former American Apparel customers can basically take and feel just as confident that these products are ethically-made and sweatshop free,” explains Bell.
“Obviously with 50,000 employees it would be erroneous on my part to say that every single one of these employees loved every minute of their jobs every single day of the year – that just is not possible. So I think the important thing for us is to build our system in such a way so we can continuously improve on the value we deliver to our employees.”
The Workers Rights Consortium (WRC) in Washington, DC has had a long history investigating Gildan’s factories since the El Progreso incident in 2004. According to executive director, Scott Nova, the WRC has identified significant labor rights violations in a number of wholly owned Gildan facilities in recent years.
In Nova’s view, the idea that American Apparel built its brand on – clothing made in the US by workers who make a living wage – directly clashes with the reality of the operations that take place in Gildan’s factories abroad.
“Obviously, Gildan is not making the products in the US, but it is also not paying workers a living wage, and there is no particular reason to think that the conditions under which American Apparel clothing are now being made are superior to the general conditions in Honduras or other countries that export apparel,” said Nova. “Using terms like ethically-made and sweatshop free – there is no way that that doesn’t make a misleading impression on consumers looking at the American Apparel website,” he added.
In the eyes of the WRC, and other labor organizations both in the US and abroad, there is no independent documented evidence to suggest that any Gildan facility in Honduras can be termed ethically made and sweatshop free.
Since the video featuring Heber Lopez was posted on the American Apparel website, three more videos have been uploaded on the same page – one depicting a school in Honduras supported by Gildan, one outlining their environmentally-friendly wastewater treatment system, and another of an in-factory clinic tending to the ailments of Gildan garment workers. Above them all, the same catchphrase is outlined in large, bold, centered letters at the very top of the page:
“Globally-Sourced, Ethically-Made, and Sweatshop Free. That’s American Apparel!”