Is there a pretender to Kathie Lee Gifford's throne? Outside the Madison Avenue DKNY flagship store Sunday afternoon, some 50 protesters weathered frigid winds and some chilly stares to propose Donna Karan for 'Sweatshop Queen of the Year.' But while Gifford was crowned for labor abuses in overseas plants making her clothing line, organizers said Sunday's demo was designed to highlight the wretched conditions Asian and Latina garment workers have suffered for years sewing DKNY clothes in a factory in midtown Manhattan.
Karan did not respond to the protesters or to phone calls, but inside the glass-enclosed, tri-level DKNY emporium, where a Chinese-style quilted silk jacket was going for $550 and a knee-length sheepskin number cost $2800, employees handed out a statement calling it "inappropriate" to target DKNY for abuses allegedly committed by one of its "contract manufacturers."
In Cantonese, Spanish, and English, the protesters declared the stance a familiar dodge, in which powerful retailers and manufacturers pin the blame for the sweatshop economy on the small contractors who march to manufacturers' orders. Garment workers have filed two lawsuits against Donna Karan International and are calling for a national boycott. Meanwhile, an international human rights group issued a detailed report Tuesday on the allegations against the company, scoring it for "numerous human rights violations." Even Gifford seemed to be getting into the act, complaining to NBC's Jane Pauley recently that "I can't police the world. I can't tell Donna Karan what to do . . . "
At the heart of the current campaign against Karan is the saga of one woman, Kwan Lai. A slight 40-year-old immigrant from Hong Kong, Lai says she began working at Eastpoint International, a 38th Street factory owned by a woman named Chung Suk Choe, seven years ago. Conditions were miserable. Lai says she often worked grueling 60-to-70-hour weeks sewing DKNY jackets, though she never received any overtime pay (an average weekly salary was $270). Surveillance cameras watched over her and her fellow workers, bathrooms were padlocked, there was no drinking water, no talking, no looking up. She endured, she says, because "I had to think of my two children."
A breaking point came when her daughter Winnie became sick one day a couple of years ago. Her husband tried to phone her at the factory. "They hung up on him several times," she says. Recounting the episode, her indignation is vivid, and she touches index finger to nose: "I couldn't take it anymore." She eventually filed suit for years of unpaid wages. (Last December, court papers show, Eastpoint and Donna Karan International jointly settled the suit for $30,000.)
That was hardly the end of it. Back at the factory, says Lai, she was ostracized. The reason, recalls Maria Yunga, a 37-year-old from Ecuador, was that supervisors had forbidden others to talk to Lai. "They said she was a troublemaker. I felt bad, but we were afraid." The Latina seamstresses, adds Yunga, all worked by hand: They weren't allowed to operate machines because, she says, "They said we Latinas break everything."
In December, Lai was let go. She says she was told work had dried up, but just weeks later she saw her coworkers at the old plant. The ostracism and her firing have become the basis of a federal lawsuit alleging retaliation. At least she is no longer alone: In March, Donna Karan Internationalciting the ongoing complaints about the factoryterminated its contract with Eastpoint" I stitched for them for 11 years," says Yunga, "ever since I came to this country. I was used for all those years, then they left us without jobs."
Eastpoint's owner, Chung Suk Choe, could not be reached for comment, but in court papers she asserted that she did not "direct, condone, or encourage" retaliation against Lai.
For its part, Donna Karan International says in its statement that though "we had no control over the workforce at the factory," the company urged Choe to "amicably resolve the issues with its workers." When that failed, "we decided to place this work with other union contractors."
But Jo Ann Lum, of the National Mobilization Against Sweatshops, notes that by simply dissolving its relationship with Eastpoint, Donna Karan is trying to absolve itself while abandoning the workers who brought problems to light.
As with Kathie Lee Gifford, say the protesters, the issue remains the responsibility of manufacturers. According to Ken Kimerling, an attorney with the Asian American Legal Defense Fund, "These manufacturers have ample opportunityand obligationto find out if the workers are being paid overtime and minimum wage. Everybody knows they work all weekend." Recent legal decisions, he says,have set some precedents for holding manufacturers liable. A similar argument was made by the New York-based Center for Economic and Social Rights, which this week issued a report concluding that Donna Karan had used "the subcontracting system to sweat workers to produce high quality garments at low wages but refused to accept responsibility for conditions."
Soon after the factory shut down, Lai sought out organizers with NMASS. She helped contact erstwhile coworkers, and, remarkably, seven Latina seamstresses, including Maria Yunga, decided to join her fight. Those workers have filed a separate federal lawsuit for back wages. Though Lai disclaims the moniker of activist, her anger has clearly galvanized her. She is helping to spearhead a new national campaign called Ain't I a Woman?!, an effort to knit together women workers from all walks of life.
As for Karan, Lai says a friend recently showed her a picture of the multimillionaire designer. She says with a laugh that she found Karan "very pretty." On the outside, that is. "She exploits the workers who work under her, and refuses to take responsibility. Inside? Horrible."
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Village Voice's biggest stories.