Last week, NBA stars LeBron James, Kobe Bryant and Deron Williams donned "I CAN'T BREATHE" T-shirts in support of Michael Brown and Eric Garner — two unarmed black men killed by police over the summer. But now, a political activist who helped organize and produce some of the shirts says he regrets they were manufactured by a company that has long been accused of poor labor practices.
"I think we want to assume sometimes when we’re ordering shirts that they’re not being made in a sweatshop," Michael Skolnick, political director for hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons, said in an interview with The Washington Post. "We’ve got to do better."
Skolnick was featured in a New York Times article last week that detailed how the shirts were secured for players in less than 24 hours to show support for protest movements around the country. But revelations that the T-shirts were made by a company that has faced criticism for mistreating workers -- an accusation the firm rejects -- is now raising questions about whether a movement for racial justice has a responsibility to make sure it also advances economic fairness.
Political activists have gotten in trouble for their choice of T-shirt manufacturers before. Last month, a shirt that read “This is what a feminist looks like” worn by, among others, U.N. Goodwill Ambassador Emma Watson, was pulled from store shelves in the United Kingdom after allegations it was produced in a sweatshop.
"It’s a good lesson learned and certainly we want to support good labor practices," Skolnick said. "And I think it’s okay to admit mistakes. Because we’re going to make them."
In this case, he said, the mistake was made "strictly out of speed and thinking how to get the shirts as quickly as possible."
"I can't breathe" — Garner's final words — became a rallying cry after a grand jury decided not to an indict an officer who put Garner in an apparent chokehold. Through protests at Wal-Mart and hashtags like #BoycottBlackFriday, protests after the deaths of Brown and Garner became linked to the labor movement and attempts to pass a higher minimum wage.
Skolnick said everyone shared a responsibility to understand where their clothing comes from. He pointed out that no one "was immediately harmed" by the "I CAN'T BREATHE" shirts, but protesters must be aware of the sweatshop debate.
Skolnick said future shirts would be manufactured by another company that he declined to name, citing ongoing negotiations.
Skolnick obtained shirts from a store in Long Island City, whose owner confirmed in an interview that the shirts were manufactured by Gildan, a large Canada-based apparel company.
According to pro-labor activists, Gildan has a poor record when it comes to respecting workers in its manufacturing plants in Haiti.
"It’s not a humane shop. It’s not good labor practice. It’s pretty bad conditions. … It has a reputation as being the lowest of the low," said Adam Neiman, owner of No Sweat Apparel, a company in Newton, Mass., that specializes in sourcing garments made in union shops in the United States.
Neiman said that the price of cotton, an international commodity, is something T-shirt manufacturers can't control. The price of labor, however, they can.
"The only variable is in the labor, which is why the garment industry is vulnerable to sweatshop exploitation," Neiman said.
A recent story in Toronto's Globe and Mail profiled a Haitian man named Charlotin Odinel, one of many reportedly fired for union activism from Gildan-affiliated plants. He earned about $12 per day:
Odinel was a cog in Gildan’s vast production network, which stretches from Central America and the Caribbean Basin to Bangladesh, employing about 41,000 people and producing apparel that is sold in more than 30 countries. While the lives of workers like Odinel are grim, Gildan is a success story. It had fiscal 2013 revenues of almost $2.2 billion (U.S.), net earnings of $320 million (U.S.), and a stock that’s soared from less than $17 in 2011 to more than $67 as of early November. The company is gaining market share, having more than doubled sales since 2009.
Gildan's problems with the anti-sweatshop crowd are many, including "significant labor rights violations at multiple factories," said Scott Nova, director of the Workers' Rights Consortium (WRC), a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that monitors working conditions in factories around the world. Nova said the company gets shirts from Haiti, where minimum-wage laws have been violated "for years."
The company has promised to address complaints about pay, but has provided no documentation despite repeated requests from the WRC, Nova said.
"They've purported for a long time to be a responsible company," Nova said. "But there's no excuse for that in their supply chain. It happens again and again."
Gildan strongly rejected the activists' allegations.
"We have a very detailed and comprehensive and robust social compliance program," Peter Iliopoulos, senior vice president of corporate affairs at Gildan, said in a telephone interview with The Post.
Iliopoulos said Gildan pays its workers more than the industry standard minimum wage; provides some employees medical care, educational opportunities and free transportation; is included in the Dow Jones sustainability index; and that about 25 percent of its workforce is unionized. He called concerns about pay an "industry-wide issue" not specific to Gildan, whose contract workers in Haiti are paid about $6 for eight hours of work — higher than the country's minimum wage. He also pointed to Gildan's social responsibility Web site, Genuine Gildan.
"We have a leading socially responsibility program, Iliopoulus said. "We never rest on our laurels, so to speak. We’ll push ourselves to continue our program and make it better and better."
Skolnick provided T-shirts to Deron Williams, Kevin Garnett and Alan Anderson of the Nets. But others obtained shirts through alternative means. The New York Times reported LeBron James's "I CAN'T BREATH" shirt was provided by the Nets' Jarrett Jack, who obtained them from Excel Sports Management. That agency and a representative for James did not respond to The Post's requests for comment, and the manufacturer of James's shirt was not known.
In other quarters, Gildan is praised for attempts to improve working conditions in its factories. Since 2007, for example, the company has been certified by the Fair Labor Association (FLA), "a collaborative effort of universities, civil society organizations and socially responsible companies dedicated to protecting workers’ rights around the world," according to its Web site.
But critics say the FLA's board includes a number of garment-industry representatives.
"You can say Gildan has a compliance program accredited by the FLA and you'd be factually correct, but if you say they are sweatshop free you're really just expressing an opinion about what sweatshop free means," Duncan Carson of Ban T-shirts, a Connecticut company that sells organic T-shirts produced in union shops, wrote in an e-mail.
Carson said where a company chooses to do business demonstrates its commitment to fair labor practices. And when it does business outside of the United States, he has questions.
"The motivator for these companies to manufacture outside of the U.S. or other developed countries is that labor is cheaper and it is cheaper because there is less legislation to protect workers, the environment, producers, etc.," he wrote.
The FLA did not respond to requests for comment by publication time.
Activists say it's a fine line whether activists for one cause - fair treatment of African Americans by the criminal justice system -- requires a full commitment to another social cause.
Rameen Aminzadeh, member of the activist group Justice League NYC who designed the shirts worn by the Nets, wanted protesters to keep an eye on where their "I CAN'T BREATHE" shirts come from.
"People jumped on the effort when things were available to get them done in three hours," he told The Post. "If there is any bad review or bad practices by a specific T-shirt manufacturer, we do not endorse anything like that. We would encourage people to use shirts that don’t endorse slave labor or sweatshop practices."
But Nova also stressed that he did not think it is the job of those protesting alleged police brutality to certify their shirts are sweatshop-free.
"Frankly, I don’t expect them to understand the circumstances," Nova said. "It's a real challenge given how few responsible products there are."