When I received an invitation to tour a Vietnamese garment manufacturer, I was most interested as horrible images of the past danced in the shadows of my mind. Who could forget gospel singing, Christian darling Kathie Lee Gifford’s Honduras sweatshop that, according to the 1996 report of “Human Rights Group,” employed children as young as 12 making slave wages for her Wal-Mart line of clothing. Although Gifford denied any knowledge of the children’s substandard working conditions, I did hear her state “Those kids were lucky to have a job.” For a recognized Christian spokesman, I found this attitude to be rather interesting and revealing.
Even Snow White’s multimillion dollar Disney brand was exposed by a multitude of journalists, including Charles Kernaghan and Frederick Kopp, for working with garment manufactures in Haiti that employed children working under the same conditions as found in the Honduran sweatshops but for ven less money. What was so amazing with squeaky clean, saintly Disney is they got away with this crime against children and humanity for over 20 years before being exposed.
The 2006 National Labor and Human Rights Committee Report, published by Harvard Law School, indicated over 200 children, many as young as 11, were forced to work in sweat shops in Bangladesh for such U.S. companies as Haynes; Wal-Mart; J.C. Penney; Puma; Harvest Rich. These children were locked into their work environment for 14-hour shifts, seven days a week. When their production quotas were not met, they were beaten by adult supervisors who wanted to make sure they were earning their six cents an hour. Once this report was released, more corporate funds were spent on damage control as opposed to compensating the child victims they created.
Disney has at least one board member who makes about $34 million a year; Wal-Mart has at least one board member who makes about $25 million a year. Under our current Calvinist, fundamentalist-sanctioned business system, we would never ask the question: “How many millions of dollars do we need to make before we give some of it back to the six-cent-an-hour common laborer?”
Now that the Republicans control Congress, I had a fear that we would stop exporting exploitation of children and actually bring these practices back onto the mainland under the banner of ‘creating new jobs’ or ‘the new work ethic.’ I could not wait to see garment manufacturing in Vietnam.
Upon arrival at my assignment, the first thing I saw was the company store and I immediately heard Tennessee Ernie Ford’s voice “I owe my soul to the company store.” These are times in Southern America I actually witnessed. My heart literally began to race.
The General Director of GARCO 10 is an outgoing, friendly, immediately likable woman, Nguyen Thi Thanh Huyen. She showed me the company store, which is open to the public and offers general merchandise as well as food. The major difference from the exploitative U.S. model, that folk legends Ernie Ford and Merle Travis sang about, is that GARCO 10 employees receive huge discounts. Nobody at GARCO 10 owes their soul to the company.
I then saw the on-site hospital, which offers employees universal health care that includes dental, acupuncture, medical, and eye examinations. Just as I was absorbing this, I caught sight of the on-site day care center and special party area for the children of GARCO 10 employees. “I was a GARCO 10 baby,” Huyen told me, “I was born in the hospital at mom’s work site.” Huyen then proudly told me some of the families are into their fourth generation of workers. The children are educated at the work site and are instructed in dance, theatre, ballet. “GARCO 10 functions more as a family unit,” Huyen told me and I was beginning to see this for myself.
GARCO 10 also has a number of other unusual features. They have their own shops where employees are trained as sales associates. They offer off-the-rack, as well as custom-made, clothing items. Their modern, elegant styles brought me back to my youth in the country when we looked forward to getting the Sears or other big city catalogues just to look at the cool clothes we would never see. They also have their own hotel and restaurant that trains employees in all aspects of those particular employments.
They have their own museum. After World War II, the Vietnamese people expected their first prolonged period of peace and prosperity. Under this assumption, GARCO 10 was founded in 1946, not realizing Western powers would back colonialist France in their efforts to exploit the Vietnamese people and plunder the land of its natural resources. Nonetheless, GARCO 10 continued to give the people a better life through their service to the community and employees. This attitude remains in tact today.
GARCO 10 also has its own college. Many of the students are not dependents of employees but high school graduates training for positions GARCO has or anticipates having. High school graduates are allowed to participate in fashion shows and listen to lectures by noted Italian, French, United Kingdom designers. Students that show promise are encouraged, given scholarships, and generally end up working for GARCO 10 after graduation. I had the opportunity to review many of their works and designs and they certainly have a European flavor.
Workers work 9-hour shifts that include an hour for lunch, generally taken in the company cafeteria. No one works Sunday as that is a day for family and rest. GARCO 10 also provides an on-site temple for employee meditation and prayer.
GARCO has 19 factories, all in Vietnam. They employee over 10,000 people; produce over 30 million units of clothing per year; have well established market shares in the United States, Europe, and Japan. Some of their American clients include: Van Heusen; Pierre Cardin; Arizona; Old Navy; The Gap; DKNY; Arrow; Liz Claborn; NY Lerner; St. John Bay; Duck Head; Docker; and Izod.
Their Ha Quang factory, in Quang Binh Province, was built especially for the U.S. market and employees over 1800 workers. Over 70% of the 500,000 clothing items produced a month at this facility are shipped into the United States. These units are colorful and eye-catching, I actually ended up with several items in an (useless) attempt to look more “with it…” In part, it is because of this facility that for the first time in GARCO 10 history, the board of directors are considering expanding operations into a foreign country. The nation of choice is the United States. Although there would be benefits to both sides, the United States would benefit the most from having a company like GARCO 10 set up shop. Outsourcing has destroyed families and communities. We need to not only reverse this trend but present a working business model for everyone to see.
As with all GARCO 10 facilities, the buildings are up to code and modern looking. They are well lit. There is music and in some cases, as with all Vietnamese you will run into, their is a natural will to sing. The equipment is well conditioned and safe. There are safety committees and constant skills training. The employees all appeared professional and happy. Yes, they did seem like one big happy family and after all why shouldn’t they, it was the day before Christmas. Christmas trees and decorations were everywhere. One could not escape the barrage of Christmas songs, usually in English.
Even though Huyen is a practicing Buddhist, she loves Christmas. She treated us to Christmas dinner well aware that I was part of a flight crew during the war. At this time of year, Huyen as well as many GARCO 10 employees are involved in community charity work including volunteer activities that target veterans and their families. We were saddened to learn Huyen’s father, a GARCO 10 factory worker, was killed during one of Nixon’s Christmas bombing raids. Like all the other Vietnamese we have met, no one harbors resentment or ill feelings towards those that did them wrong. They merely picked up the pieces and continued their journey to help and assist others as best they can. They think in terms of “we” or community and not “I” or self. This is the type of business model we are in desperate need of in America and would be one of our biggest Christmas presents.