The link between firefighters and modern slavery

(Charles Kernaghan spoke at the Convention of the International Association of Fire Fighters in San Diego, California, during August 2010.)

For millions upon millions of workers worldwide, exploitation remains a fact of life. Around 35 million coloured women and girls, mostly in Asia, working in conditions that most North Americans could not imagine enduring, sew the clothing and make the shoes upon which we spend billions of dollars. Most of them walked away with pennies for each hour of their drudgery and misery.

Discussing their fate and how it connects with the corporate drive to crush labour unions in North America is Charlie Kernaghan. Kernaghan heads the New York-based Institute for Global Labour and Human Rights (formerly the National Labour Committee), an NGO of global labour advocates who risk their own safety in the pursuit of justice for some of the most exploited workers in the world through exposing human and labour rights abuses perpetrated by US companies producing goods in poor countries.

Kernaghan, who’s made a living as furniture mover, carpenter, cab driver and university instructor, began his crusade for workers’ rights in 1985. But his international fame came from rattling the chains of one particularly famous hypocrite: Kathie Lee Gifford of Live with Regis and Kathie Lee.

A portion of Gifford’s family clothing line profits was supposed to aid disadvantaged American children. But the clothes themselves were made in Honduran sweatshops by thirteen year-old girls working thirteen-hour shifts for 31 cents an hour, under armed guard.

Gifford broke down in tears on North American television when Kernaghan broke the story, threatening to sue him and the tiny NLC. Her threats crumbled into defeat when she was eventually forced to sign a code of conduct which was to include independent monitoring, a story detailed in the acclaimed Canadian documentary The Corporation.

Being known as “the man who made Kathie Lee cry” is enough to endear Kernaghan to many; he’s been written up in Mother Jones magazine, been featured on David Barsamian’s Alternative Radio and gives somewhere around seventy speeches a year.


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