Fabric, sweat and tears

Slowly, piece-by-piece, Milwaukee artist Terese Agnew is creating a homage to what she calls the "nameless and faceless" sweatshop workers of the garment industry.

Agnew is constructing "Portrait of a Textile Worker," an eight-by-nine foot "art quilt" portrait of a young female garment worker from Bangladesh entirely out of clothing labels. Agnew said he has received over 1,000 packets of the donated labels from all 50 states and several foreign countries, including Sweden, France and Germany.

The idea to create "Portrait of a Textile Worker" came to Agnew in stages. Working as a co-designer for the Wisconsin Workers Memorial in Milwaukee's Zeidler Union Square Park about five years ago first introduced Agnew to the realm of labor issues.

"Portrait of a Textile Worker"

"I got familiar with labor issues and the struggle of working people," she said.

Several years after that, Agnew went to a speech by Charles Kernaghan, the anti-sweatshop activist most famous for "making Kathie Lee Gifford cry" by exposing the harsh labor conditions teenage girls in Honduras were reportedly forced to work under to produce the talk show host's line of clothing. Kernaghan brought two young Nicaraguan women who had worked in sweatshops as speakers, and their presentation had a profound affect on Agnew.

"It's one thing to hear about sweatshops and say 'Oh, that's really bad,'" Agnew said, "but it's a completely different thing to meet these people.

"When you see people like this right next to you, you say, 'That could be me. That could be my daughter. That could be my sister.'"

About six months later, Agnew was in Boston Store in Bayshore and was struck by the promotions for designer clothing.

"I saw all these names – Ralph Lauren, Calvin Klein, Liz Claiborne – and it occurred to me that these are all proper names," Agnew said. "And I thought 'But what about the people who actually made the clothes?'"

Agnew is basing the art quilt on a picture of Kernaghan's. He sent her many pictures of sweatshop workers, Agnew said, and though many tugged at her heartstrings, her choice was clear.

"I went through a lot of (the photos) and there were a lot that would have told a story, but I thought it was important to show one who was dignified and working hard and doing something that required skill," Agnew said.

Art takes shape

Agnew's East Side home is not the stereotypical bohemian den of an artist, but evidence of her work abounds: the mostly-finished art quilt takes up all of one wall and then some ("I had to pin it back so we could get in and out if this door," Agnew admitted) and trimmed-off scraps of labels dust the floor underneath the art quilt and the file cabinet-sized hampers where the labels are organized by color and finish.

Agnew groups the labels by color and pins them to a gauze-like web of fabric, which attaches itself to the labels when she irons it. After removing the pins, Agnew reinforces this adhesion by sewing the labels to the gauze with a sewing machine. The result is a piece of fabric not unlike a patch used in patchwork quilt. Agnew then attaches the smaller patch to the rest of the art quilt, judging its placement by an enlarged copy of Kernaghan's photo she has mounted on the wall behind the quilt.

From a distance, "Portrait of a Textile Worker" appears to be black and white, but closer inspection reveals areas of different hues, from pale pink and peach to light blue and even hints of red on the woman's lips.

A global problem

What exactly constitutes a sweatshop is difficult to define due in large part to the subjective nature of the term, but it is generally considered to be a factory where workers perform routine, sometimes dangerous, tasks over long shifts for minimal pay. Typically, sweatshops are in developing nations and maintain an unsanitary or hazardous work environment.

The Government Accountability Office, which studies the programs and expenditures of the federal government, defines a sweatshop as "an employer that violates more than one federal or state labor, industrial homework, occupation health and safety, workers' compensation or industry registration law." Usually, sweatshops produce garments, but sweatshops producing sports equipment and hand-woven rugs have also been documented in articles published in Marketing and The Humanist magazines, respectively.

Although most sweatshops are found in Third World nations, the United States has sweatshops within its borders, particularly in the cities of Los Angeles, Miami, New York and El Paso, Texas, according to GAO reports.

Name brand designers such as Guess, DKNY and Bebe as well as household brands like Nike, Levi Strauss and Arizona Jeans Co. have all been accused of using sweatshops to produce their products.

A homegrown international issue?

While many anti-sweatshop activist targets are more likely to be found on Fifth Avenue or Rodeo Drive than in the suburbs of Milwaukee, one of them is closer to home.

Kohl's Department Stores, based in Menomonee Falls, has been a target of anti-sweatshop activists since 2000 for its financial involvements with sweatshops.

The first issue that caught the attention of anti-sweatshop activists and groups was Kohl's decision to purchase garments from two Nicaraguan sweatshops four years ago, according to Steve Watrous of the Wisconsin Fair Trade Campaign. Despite protests and a growing number of groups involved, including the National Labor Committee and the Campaign for Labor Rights, Kohl's remained unresponsive, according to Watrous.

"They kind of stonewalled us and weren't as responsive as we'd like," Watrous said.

Kohl's hired corporate affairs firm PricewaterhouseCoopers to perform an audit of its overseas labor practices, according to Watrous, but the glowing report that PricewaterhouseCoopers issued amounted to nothing but a "whitewash."

"Kohl's, as far as I could tell, never did much of anything," Watrous said.

The campaign did have a positive side, however.

"It really gave a boost to the anti-sweatshop movement here," Watrous said.

Just how much of a boost the movement received will be evident in the coming weeks and months as anti-sweatshop groups and activists scrutinize Kohl's once again for its involvement in more suspected sweatshops in Indonesia and Nicaragua.

Kohl's received a D+ on the anti-sweatshop group Co-Op America's "Retailer Scorecard." Co-Op America contends that Kohl's subcontracted work to three of what it regards as the worst sweatshops – including hiring the Nicaraguan outfit Chentex, where workers made jeans for 18 cents an hour despite its illegal suppression of unions – and paying the Daewoosa factory in American Samoa to make clothes bearing "Made in the USA" labels even though the factory's owner was convicted in February 2003 of human trafficking and confining workers in involuntary servitude.

Kohl's spokesman Steve Mann denied in an e-mail message that Kohl's deals with sweatshops.

"Kohl's recognizes its ethical and business responsibility to assure that the merchandise it sells is manufactured in accordance with all applicable laws, and that the rights and welfare of workers around the world are respected," Mann wrote.

However, Mann did not make himself available to respond directly to the accusations of Watrous and Co-Op America.

While the human rights community is sold on the perception of sweatshops as being bad, not everyone else is so sure.

A report by the National Bureau of Economic Research, a private nonprofit economics research organization, says multinational corporations pay their workers more than do locally owned companies.

"The Effects of Multinational Production on Wages and Working Conditions in Developing Countries" reports that Indonesian workers in Nike subcontractor factories, for example, earn $720 a year – a huge sum in comparison to the country's average yearly salary of $241.