A 13-year-old report linking US corporations to sweatshop-like conditions in Chinese shoe factories has come back to haunt Democratic Congressional candidate Chrissy Houlahan, who is running against Republican U.S. Rep. Ryan Costello in Pennsylvania’s 6th District.
Houlahan had worked for years as an executive at AND1, an athletic apparel company, serving as chief operating officer until the company’s sale in 2005. Findings from a 2004 report by the pro-union Institute for Global Labour and Human Rights outlined financial ties between the sneaker company and factories owned by the Taiwan-based Pou Chen Group that allegedly engaged in “abusive working conditions.”
The 2004 “China Labor Watch” report states that forced overtime, subsistence wages and repressive management tactics were routine at Pou Chen plants in Dongguan, China, including a factory that produced And1 sneakers.
Houlahan has frequently cited her business acumen on the campaign trail, while she and her husband, Bart – another former AND1 exec – have both touted the company’s treatment of its overseas workers.
“(At AND1), we made our shoes in China, just like Nike and Reebok, but we paid the workers a living wage and made sure they were in a safe environment,” Bart Houlahan wrote, in a 2012 essay about corporate social responsibility.
But, according to interviews with former laborers, 75- to 100-hour workweeks were the norm, with employees earning just 35 cents an hour. The report notes that plant workers lived in “primitive” dormitories and were fed food that resembled “pig slop.” During working hours, employees were prohibited from talking on the factory floor and had to perform mandatory daily calisthenics routines while shouting company slogans.
While the report largely focuses on athletic apparel giant Puma’s links to Chinese sweatshops, one section states that conditions at AND1’s Pou Chen plant were “extremely similar if not exactly the same” to those documented at the Puma plant. A previous report on another Pou Chen facility, issued in the year 2000, included similar findings.
Houlahan said she had no memory of the report – Even though an old work bio says she oversaw production, distribution and logistics for AND1’s footwear unit. She nevertheless praised her former employer’s track record of promoting positive working conditions overseas.
“We worked very aggressively to have a very rigorous code of conduct for our manufacturers,” she said. “We conducted very rigorous audits of all of our factories. We had American expats embedded in all of our factories.”
However, the report specifically criticizes the failure of Puma and And1’s “gullible monitors” to detect apparently widespread abuses. Houlahan acknowledged that ensuring compliance with Western labor standards was a “continuous process.”
She also pointed out that her company was hardly unique in its use of Chinese labor.
“In my opinion, this criticism is relatively hollow. This company was started from scratch in the 1990s when a lot of our manufacturing was being done overseas,” she said. “90 percent of footwear is made overseas.”
But the National Republican Congressional Committee was quick to make hay out of the findings. Even though the report’s authors are hardly conservative bedfellows, an NRCC spokesperson said it said showed Houlahan’s progressive values were skin-deep.
“Chrissy Houlahan lined her pockets while her company exploited and abused Chinese laborers,” said NRCC spokesman Chris Martin. “Her history of personally profiting from sweatshop labor should alarm Pennsylvanians of all backgrounds and political affiliations.”
Martin also questioned how a high-level executive could have been completely unaware of working conditions at its facilities overseas.
“As a top AND1 executive in charge of distribution, Houlahan’s claims of ignorance are an outright lie and should disqualify her from serving in Congress,” he said.
Although Costello was silent on the report, the Democratic candidate accused her opponent of his own form of hypocrisy, pointing out that the formerly Paoli-based company brought hundreds of non-manufacturing jobs to his district in Philadelphia’s western suburbs.
“If my opponent is asking me about these things – about a company that was based in his district and employed many of his constituents – I would be frustrated a little bit,” she said. “You know, one of the things that differentiates me from my opponent is that I actually know how to grow a business.”