Kathie Lee's Latest Sweatshop Scandal

Central American workers say TV personality's clothes produced in brutal conditions; the Giffords react

By Emily Farache Sep 22, 1999 6:35 PMTags
Labor groups are sweatin' Kathie Lee Gifford. Again.

And she and hubby Frank just ain't gonna take it.

Just three years after the weepy television queen pledged to help end labor abuse in the apparel industry, new allegations have surfaced claiming thousands of Salvadoran woman are making Gifford's signature Wal-Mart clothes under horrible conditions.

A teary Frank appeared at a Washington, D.C., press conference Wednesday to defend his Kathie Lee, telling her accusers, "I resent what you have done to my wife. You have assassinated her character."

Also on the defensive was the perky talk-show host. On Thursday's Live with Regis and Kathie Lee, she said her critics should attack sweatshops, not her. "This is an issue that just doesn't go away because sweatshops, unfortunately, haven't gone away."

Speaking at a New York press conference Tuesday, two former factory employees said they were fired after speaking up for workers' rights. The women, who once worked at the factory in Santa Ana, El Salvador, described 11-hour, six-day work weeks in sweltering conditions for a base wage of 60 cents an hour.

The ex-workers related a story far removed from Kathie Lee's happy, made-for-TV life. They said fellow women in the factory were subjected to pregnancy tests, and worked 12-15 hour days in poorly ventilated buildings surrounded by barbed wire and armed guards. One union rep allegedly received death threats after complaining about workers' treatment.

Charles Kernaghan, head of the National Labor Committee, criticized Gifford for not living up to her promise to end sweatshop conditions at factories that make her clothing. "Kathie Lee Gifford is a celebrity, a very influential and powerful person," he said. Kernaghan first revealed the link between the TV personality's label and other sweatshops in 1996.

Bob Adler, chairman of the Kellwood Co. division that licenses the Kathie Lee line, said monitors sent to the Caribbean Apparel factory in Santa Ana could not immediately substantiate allegations of physical and psychological abuse.

Adler acknowledged that there was some suspicion about problems at that factory, and said some supervisors were "short" with employees, but said Kathie Lee had nothing to do personally with where the goods are placed .

Gifford released a statement expressing her concern. If the allegations prove to be true, she said, "we will not allow that facility to continue manufacturing goods bearing my name."

Regis' usually perky sidekick sustained a major PR hit in 1996, when it was revealed that her clothing line was cranked out at substandard facilities with near-slave labor. (Hubby Frank had to help Kathie Lee personally hand out checks to the disgruntled workers to help her save face.)

She subsequently vowed to help put sweatshops out of business. Gifford has been true to her word: In December 1997, she blew the whistle to regulators over another substandard factory manufacturing her apparel.