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Protesters Take Swing at Pirates Over 'Sweatshop'

By Chris Osher - Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, Friday, August 24, 2004

Free Pittsburgh Pirates T-shirts handed out by a bank at the team's home games are made in a Honduran sweatshop that committed labor violations, a protest group alleged Monday.

About a dozen protesters gathered at the park near the Roberto Clemente statue before the Pirates-Diamondbacks game to protest what they contend are low-paying jobs, dangerous working conditions and sexual abuse at the Gildan Activewear sewing factory in El Progreso, Honduras.

Gildan Activewear, based in Montreal, employs more than 9,000 people in 11 countries, the company's Web site states.

The protesters contend Gildan decided to close the Honduran factory at the end of September after workers there tried to form a union. The plant employs 1,800 people. The protesters called on the Pirates to pressure Gildan to keep the factory open and improve working conditions.

"The Pittsburgh Pirates should represent Pittsburghers' concern for human dignity and the law in this case, and become a part of the dialogue," said Kenneth Miller, 30, a waiter from Point Breeze who helped organize the protest.

Pirates spokeswoman Patty Paytas said she would need to research the issue further before commenting.

Catherine Orer, a Gildan spokeswoman, denied that workers' efforts to form a union prompted the company to close the factory. The company will close the plant for "business and operational reasons," she said.

Orer added that recent recommendations by groups that investigated the factory are being implemented in other Gildan facilities.

The T-shirts are handed out at PNC Park to fans who apply for a credit card from MBNA American Bank, based in Wilmington, Del. Officials with the bank did not respond to telephone calls seeking comment about the promotion.

The Fair Labor Association and Worker Rights Consortium, nonprofits in Washington, D.C., both investigated complaints about Gildan's Honduran factory and have issued reports criticizing practices there.

A July 29 report by the Worker Rights Consortium found that Gildan fired 42 workers in November 2002, three months after 39 of them signed documents in support of a union. The consortium also found that in the fall of 2003 the company fired two union organizers and 39 other employees who supported efforts to establish a union.

Female workers told consortium investigators they were sexually harassed by the company doctor, who has since left Gildan. The consortium also found the factory forced employees to work 11-hour shifts without a paid 30-minute lunch break.

Orer said the firm has responded to the complaints made by the two groups, which recommended that Gildan change work schedules, give employees breaks and pay overtime, among other things. She said Gildan is making sure the recommendations are followed at other Gildan factories.

"We committed ourselves to remediating the findings we weren't compliant in," Orer said.

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