Kathie Lee and Kate: Sweatshop Soul Mates

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Better make it travelerís checks this time, Frank. Kathie Lee Gifford, perpetually and ostentatiously horrified at the injustices in the world, faces making yet another conciliatory gesture to workers producing her Kathie Lee line of clothing. Tuesday morning, three years after the perky talk-show host and her husband handed out checks to unpaid Kathie Lee employees in a New York garment factory, two women announced they were fired from their jobs in an abusive El Salvadoran sweatshop, allegedly for raising the issue of workersí rights. The two women also allege that attempts to unionize have been met with death threats from lawyers representing the Korean-owned factory. Kathie Lee, of course, is quite displeased (and also very embarrassed) by this news and issued a statement stating that if the allegations prove true, "we will not allow that facility to continue manufacturing goods bearing my name."

If Kathie Lee makes good on that threat by tearing up her contract with yet another sweatshop, will her actions have an impact in the grand scheme of workersí rights? Eventually, says TIME senior economics reporter Bernard Baumohl. "Thereís an inexorable trend toward better working conditions in factories abroad. Itís part and parcel of the globalization process." These days, Baumohl explains, when a U.S.-based company sends manufacturing contracts abroad, it is expected, and sometimes required, to pay a reasonable wage for services rendered. In countries highly dependent on foreign contracts, an increase in manufacturing-job salaries means a considerable upswing in the national standard of living. Rising wages in foreign countries are good news to U.S. labor interests as well, says Baumohl. Immigrant workers, such as the factory employees who recently launched a campaign against conditions in the New York City factory that makes super-trendy Kate Spade handbags, would be far less likely to have to work for substandard wages in the U.S. if salaries in other countries were higher. "Cheap foreign manufacturing makes U.S. labor unions very nervous," says Baumohl. "The labor leaders have a vested interest in seeing better wages around the world, because that eventually translates into a level playing field, with fewer jobs leaving the U.S." Then at least Kathie Lee won't have to fork out for airfare as well as those checks.