Kathie Lee's clothing label Child labor: Bad publicity for celebrity endorsement illuminates plight of young workers.


AS KATHIE LEE GIFFORD tells it, a few weeks ago she was merely a talk-show entertainer and guilt-free celebrity endorser of products and services. Now, she says, she is chastened but eager to contribute to the fight to stamp out child labor around the world.

Ms. Gifford's awakening came rather harshly, after negative publicity -- that dreaded bane of endorsers -- revealed that her line of clothing was being manufactured in sweat shops using child labor in Mexico, Honduras, Nicaragua and New York City. To make matters look even worse, some of the profits from this clothing were earmarked for New York programs helping crack babies and children with AIDS.

The painful education of an entertainer who is as public with her life as Ms. Gifford ends up educating many other people as well. Americans are shielded from the kind of grinding poverty that fuels the exploitation of workers of all ages. A childhood free of heavy labor is a luxury unknown to millions living at subsistence-level poverty around the world.

What should shock celebrity endorsers and the people who buy their products is that the conditions in these sweatshops are not unusual for millions of poor workers. For them, hardship is a way of life. Sometimes sweatshops can even represent an improvement, particularly for those who are accustomed to the harsh labor that is commonplace for poor rural families.

Sometimes this grinding poverty is a result of depleted natural resources or war. And sometimes those conditions reflect misplaced national priorities -- focusing on showpiece development projects at the expense of funneling opportunities to the poorest or pouring money into the military instead of making sure children get an education.

Americans ought to be scandalized by sweatshops. But they should also be aware of the demographic pressures that ensure plenty of labor for these operations. The best remedy for bad working conditions is better education. But in the long run that is possible only with good practices on the part of developing countries -- and wise policies on the part of donors.

Pub Date: 8/12/96

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