After Mother Jones reported on conditions at manufacturing plants operated by companies involved in providing U.S. military uniforms (“An American Sweatshop,” May/June), Lion Apparel, the company featured in our article, publicly criticized our story and the manner in which we reported it. Lion also contacted Mother Jones requesting a full retraction of the story.
Mother Jones is not willing to retract the story, which we believe is essentially accurate. However, we invited Lion to share its views with our readers. The company declined. Nonetheless, we believe that our readers deserve to hear the company’s perspective and our response. Lion sent a number of letters and memos to Mother Jones regarding its concerns, making it difficult to summarize them. We’ve done our best to try to present what we understand to be Lion’s major allegations:
Lion Apparel says it does not manufacture military uniforms, either at the Beattyville plant described in our article, or anywhere else. As we originally reported, Mother Jones obtained a copy of the company’s $51 million contract with the Defense Department, listing more than 30 military clothing items Lion and its partner, Vallen, agreed to supply. Lion asserts that all those items are made by subcontractors, not by Lion itself, and that Lion merely manages inventory. Lion denies it confirmed, in a conversation with our writer, Mark Boal, that the company made “a percentage” of the items listed.
Lion’s denial that it manufactures military uniforms contradicts what Mother Jones was told by several current and former employees. Lion is also identified as a “prime vendor” in the Defense Supply Center’s 1997 annual report. And Lion, in its correspondence with us, conceded that it makes a “small amount” of firefighting apparel for the Air Force.
Lion says that we mischaracterized its OSHA record in an attempt to portray the company as having unsafe working conditions. We did mischaracterize the number of OSHA fines Lion received in 1993 and in 1996. We should have reported that in 1993 Lion received seven citations, which resulted in two fines, and in 1996 it received nine citations, which resulted in two fines. In preparing the story, Mother Jones compared Lion’s OSHA record with those of other companies that had Defense Department contracts. Lion had 32 OSHA violations over 12 years. Other military clothing contractors, including Tennessee Apparel, American Apparel, and National Industries for the Blind, had among them only four violations for the same period. Lion suggests that its OSHA record be compared to that of the apparel industry as a whole, and claims that it has a “Recordable Incident Rate” and a “Lost Time Incident Rate” better than the industry standards. Lion concludes that it “is safer than other companies in its industry.” However, it is difficult to assess Lion’s claim because OSHA allows companies to calculate their own incident rates. Lion does not appear to calculate its incident rates in the same way OSHA does.
In addition, Lion notes that the $975 fine it received in 1998 for employee Arleena Lawson’s exposure to formaldehyde was overturned on June 1, 1999. However, the decision came after our story was published. The OSHA officer who had issued the original citation reported that he did so after speaking to several employees who complained of symptoms similar to Lawson’s, and based on his knowledge of the symptoms of formaldehyde exposure and the fact that materials at the plant were treated with formaldehyde. But in its June 1 decision, responding to Lion’s petition for review, the Kentucky OSHA Review Commission determined that the company had no reason to suspect its employees were being overexposed to formaldehyde and therefore should not have been fined.
Another Lion employee, Carol Shelton, told our writer that she was fired for refusing to do a job that would hurt her back. Lion says that Shelton was fired for repeatedly refusing to do a job, and that she did not inform the company of her back problems. Shelton has spoken to a lawyer about her case, but we mistakenly reported that a workers’ compensation claim was pending. No claim is currently pending.
Lion says it exceeds anti-sweatshop wage criteria, with a base pay rate of $7 an hour. According to the current and former employees who spoke with our writer, in order to make $7 an hour, employees had to meet 100 percent of their quota. Because few employees were able to do so, many of them were on supplemental government assistance. In addition, some employees have also given sworn testimony that they could not afford the health insurance that Lion offered.
Lion also says its workers did not reject unionization efforts by the apparel union, UNITE, because of pressure from the company. It says instead that UNITE has attempted to “put those employees out of work by actively defaming Lion directly to its customers.” This is not the first time Lion has accused UNITE of trying to hurt its business. As Mother Jones originally reported, we have obtained several memos the company circulated during the union drive, including one that asks, “Why [is UNITE] trying to get information which they may want to use to hurt Lion’s business? If that happens, that could hurt all of our jobs.”
You can read Lion’s 22-point response to the story here.