Season of Conscience

Guest Commentary

Volume CV, No. 1January, 2005

The National Labor Committee

As we finish up our shopping for the holiday season, let’s not forget Wal-Mart, the worst sweatshop abuser in the world today.

Each year, the National Labor Committee runs a campaign during the “shopping season” called the Holiday Season of Conscience. Our mission is to take back our economy in this country, which belongs every bit as much to the people as to the corporations.

Religious, labor, women’s and community leaders and activists joined hundreds of high school and university students in a rally we sponsored on Dec. 9 in Washington Square Park.

At our protest, we asked Mary Kate and Ashley Olsen — themselves NYU students and owners of a mega $1 billion private label for Wal-Mart — to do the right thing.

Sometimes a single action, or lack of it, can tell us a great deal about character and commitment to moral values.

The truth about Wal-Mart and Mary Kate and Ashley is that they refuse to sign even a simple pledge guaranteeing that any woman sewing their garments in Bangladesh will finally be granted her legal right to maternity leave with benefits. Nineteen other companies have signed the pledge, including PVH, Liz Claiborne, Federated, Levi Strauss, Sears, Costco and others. Where are Wal-Mart’s moral values?

It is especially sad that Mary Kate and Ashley, themselves enormously powerful and wealthy teenage superstars, will not stand up to defend the most basic rights of the teenagers across the developing world sewing their clothing for pennies an hour.

Imagine the impact if Mary Kate and Ashley did the right thing and spoke out publicly calling for an end to child labor and sweatshop abuses!

The product is protected, but not the 16-year-old girl who made it. It doesn’t have to be this way.

With the help of the WTO, corporations have demanded and won all sorts of enforceable laws in the global economy — intellectual property and copyright laws — backed up by sanctions to defend their trademarks and products.

However, try asking Wal-Mart and the other corporations: “Can’t we also legally protect the rights of the 16-year-old girl who made the product?”

They respond: “No, that would be an impediment to free trade!”

So the corporations have created a world where the product is protected, but not the human being. This is morally and ethically wrong and we do not have to allow it.


In 2004, the presidential campaigns spent over $600 million marketing their candidates, but we are still in the same place and nothing has changed. It is important to remember what Eleanor Roosevelt said: “It is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.”

We have the right to hold corporations legally accountable to respect human, women’s and worker rights. We have the right to pass laws that will prohibit the import and sale of sweatshop goods in the U.S., which are made by children, or teenagers forced to work grueling hours for just pennies, or any exploited worker who is stripped of their rights.

The joy ride is over for the corporations. They can and will be held accountable. We have the power to prohibit corporations like Wal-Mart from pitting American workers against desperately poor teenagers across the developing world in a race to the bottom over who will accept the lowest wages and benefits and the most miserable living and working conditions.

We launched the campaign to take back our country and remake the global economy with a human face. Our Dec. 9 rally took place at the site of the tragic Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in 1911 in which 146 young garment workers lost their lives.

The outrage which followed over such corporate greed and abuse led to the creation of labor, religious, and community coalitions and a burst of new union organizing. We need to feel that same outrage today and we must demand change.

For more information about us, please call (212) 242-3002 or visit

In these difficult times it is more important than ever that we stand up and be heard.