Team 4 Investigation: 'Big Ben' Shirts
PITTSBURGH -- Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is the rookie of the year, and his t-shirts are still a hot seller.
A Team 4 investigation finds most of those shirts were made in off-shore factories that critics call sweatshops.
Team 4's Paul Van Osdol aired February 4, 2005, on Channel 4 Action News.
We're not talking about the company in Bridgeville where most of these shirts were silk-screened. We're talking about a company called Gildan Activewear, of Montreal, that makes the t-shirts.
Just two months before Roethlisberger threw his first pass, Gildan became the target of human rights activists. All of this was a big surprise to "Big Ben."
You may remember Roethlisberger overseeing the creation of his official t-shirts, but that factory in Bridgeville is only where his logo was printed on the shirts.
They were actually produced at a sewing factory in Honduras, as well as others in Nicaragua and Haiti. All the factories make t-shirts for Gildan Activewear.
Three years ago, a Canadian television crew talked to workers inside one Honduran plant. They complained about cotton dust filling their lungs, they complained about the factory's stifling heat and they complained about wages -- $16 for an 11-hour day, at the time.
Gildan employee Maria Rosario was living in a one-room home with a shared outhouse. She got only cold water, and only every other day.
Rosario interpreter: "She says she wants better living conditions, but it's all she can afford on her salary."
Last July, two monitoring groups representing hundreds of colleges and universities blasted Gildan for working conditions at another Honduran factory.
The reports found employees forced to work long shifts and holidays with no overtime. They also found dozens of workers were fired after trying to organize a union, and they found allegations that a company doctor was sexually abusing female employees.
The monitoring groups were most critical of Gildan for shutting down the Honduran plant in the midst of their investigations.
Kenneth Miller, anti-sweatshop activist: "They sent the most terrible message they could to workers. The message was, if you organize a union, we're going to shut this factory down, and that's what they did in Honduras."
A Gildan spokesman told Team 4 that the company corrected all the violations found by the monitoring groups. Gildan fired the company doctor and promised new jobs to 1,800 workers laid off when the plant closed.
Last month, the monitoring groups reported that Gildan had met their demands.
Stephane Lemay, Gildan vice president: "We don't run sweatshops at all. We are extremely proud of the working conditions we offer to our employees. Many employees have been working with us for a number of years, have raised their family while working for us. They earn twice the minimum wage of their country. They're making a good living."
Twice the minimum wage -- but in Honduras, the minimum wage is just 86 cents an hour. In Nicaragua, it's 44 cents an hour. In Haiti, it's 24 cents an hour.
While Gildan has satisfied critics of the Honduran factory, the company is facing another investigation after workers in Nicaragua were fired for allegedly trying to organize a union.
Miller: "This might be at the factory where the workers were fired most recently, very possibly. I know Big Ben is not into firing workers for organizing labor unions here in Pittsburgh."
Few people know about the controversy surrounding Gildan -- certainly not people Team 4 talked to, who are buying this popular Big Ben t-shirt.
Team 4 wanted to know if Roethlisberger himself was aware of the company's troubles.
Van Osdol: "What's your take on that? Were you aware of that?"
Roethlisberger: "I'm not aware of that, sorry."
Van Osdol: "Any thoughts on that? Is it a concern?"
Roethlisberger: "I'm not going to comment on it unless I know more about it."
Van Osdol: "Is that something you'd like to know more about?"
Roethlisberger: "Absolutely. I'll talk to my agent who's in contact with those people and find out if it is indeed true."
Other Steelers were disturbed when we told them about the company's practices.
Jerome Bettis, running back: "I think the NFL has an obligation to make sure its product is made in such a way that it's not putting people at risk."
But a league official told Team 4 that Gildan is not a licensed vendor, so the NFL does not keep track of its labor problems.
Van Osdol: "This is a company that's been pretty widely criticized by some of these monitoring groups. You're not familiar with any of that?"
Dennis Kayser, NFL: "No, I'm not."
The NFL may not be involved, but there are many others who are making money off the Gildan shirts.
After Gildan makes the blank shirts at its Central American factories, they are sold to a Maryland company called Fanatics Only LLC. That's the company that cut a deal with Roethlisberger to use his name and bought more than 100,000 shirts from Gildan.
The shirts are then shipped to Classic Impressions in Bridgeville and another local printer to be silk-screened with Ben's image and signature. Finally, they're sold to local vendors.
Fanatics Only sent Baltimore lawyer Michael Freedman to Pittsburgh to track down vendors selling knockoff Big Ben shirts.
When Van Osdol asked Freedman about Gildan, Freedman said, "That's who everybody gets it from. They (Fanatics Only) haven't hired me to search out their factories."
Classic Impressions President Andy Lantzman says he was unaware of any controversy surrounding Gildan until Team 4 told him.
Van Osdol: "You wouldn't want to treat your people the way they were allegedly treating their people, would you?"
Lantzman: "No, and at the same time, people in Pennsylvania wouldn't work under those conditions. It's a whole different way of thinking, a whole different society."
One t-shirt vendor in the Strip District was so upset to learn of Gildan's track record that he says he'll stop selling their shirts.
Paul Dausch, t-shirt vendor: "I wouldn't buy their product because of that, sure."
Van Osdol: "Why not?"
Dausch: "For me to make 25 cents or 30 cents more over poor labor, it's not right."
Van Osdol talked to Roethlisberger's agent, Leigh Steinberg, who said he was unaware of Gildan's track record but plans to look into it. He said he never checked out Gildan because Roethlisberger did not sign his deal with them.
How does Gildan stack up with other companies with overseas plants? One of the groups that investigated Gildan told Van Osdol that no other company has ever shut down a plant in the midst of an investigation.