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R.I.P. Charles Kernaghan! The Man Who Started the Anti-Sweatshop Movement

I knew Charles Kernaghan personally through my work with Amnesty International and I can say he was a truly great human being. You can read his obituaries in the Washington Post and NY Times. He was known as one of the originators of the anti-sweatshop movement and as “the man who made Kathie Lee cry” for the high profile campaign he made regarding Kathie Lee Gifford’s clothing line produced under grossly substandard labor conditions.

Today we have a guest post by one of our own heroes, Ron Adams.  Ron was the teacher of 6th, 7th and 8th graders of a working class school that raised hundreds of thousands of dollars and labored for decades against child labor to honor slain 12 y.o child labor activist Iqbal Masih.

from Ron Adams:

When I learned of the recent passing of Charles Kernaghan, founder of the anti-sweatshop movement, I immediately remembered the two words of advice Charles gave in the 1990s on the phone (conference call)  to my curious 12 year old students who were angry about recent news accounts of the murder of Iqbal Masih, former child laborer,  and the realization there were millions and  millions of children globally who like Iqbal were  forced into abusive labor and denied schooling. The 12 year olds wanted more information. A small group phoned Charles looking for facts because they saw him interviewed on Nickelodeon as an expert on ending child labor. Charles respectfully and graciously took their call, listened to their  growing realization that exploited children their age might have made the clothes they were wearing.  Charles listened. Then, when one of the students asked, “What can we do?” Charles paused then said to continue to do what you’re already doing: “ASK QUESTIONS.” He affirmed these young activists. Charles suggested they call or write to clothing manufacturers big or small, visit local clothing store managers, and ASK QUESTIONS about who made the clothing sold and under what conditions?  Can the manufacturer, importer or store manager guarantee that no children made the clothing they sell?
For the next many years up until the pandemic years, those students (Broad Meadows Middle School in Quincy, MA) and generations of students after them pledged to DO SOMETHING every school year to raise awareness of forced, abusive child labor by asking questions of every store manager in the biggest shopping mall in their area after school  on the day before Thanksgiving. A small army of 12-14 year olds in teams of 3 and 4 split up the list of stores so every store manager would be asked the question “How can you guarantee no exploited children made the items you are selling? ASK QUESTIONS was solid advice then as it is now. The students called that day of  action “Shop with a Conscience Day.”
In addition to raising awareness, some Broad Meadows students became even angrier by the lack of answers being provided by store managers and by the lack of responses to letters written. The students channeled that new anger into positive activism by seeking and selecting one  grassroots, reputable non-profit which was rescuing, rehabilitating then educating former child laborers in a developing country. The students’ goal was to partner with one such organization each year in order to fund a new project which would aid a few additional dozen more former child laborers. Since 1998, the students have raised donations to fund into existence such an annual project partnership. [Example: The Kenyan School House Project co-founded by activist and filmmaker Len Morris (recipient of the U.S. Department of Labor’s Iqbal Masih Award]
Every year since 1998 the Broad Meadows Middle School students have been meeting after school once a week  to work together online with a few other interested schools to raise awareness of sweatshops, of those who work to eliminate abusive child labor and those who aid vulnerable and abused child laborers. The students call their volunteer group Operation Day’s Work-USA ( )  The students have created tee shirts for, but the students could not and would not hypocritically wear tee shirts unless they are child-labor-free. Questions were asked about who makes the tee shirts and several U.S. businesses and one global manufacturer could guarantee their tees are child-labor-free. Sweat-X, (US) and edun live (Ireland) tees were originally chosen by the students. A union shop called Mirror Image in Rhode Island prints the ODW-USA logo on the child labor free tees. Mirror Image is led by Rick Roth, legendary human rights activist and long time adviser and inspiration to the Broad Meadows Middle School students since the 90s.
Charles Kernaghan listened to the fragile voices of the Broad Meadows Middle School students. He gave the students his respect, patience and expertise. That affirmation plus the mantra ASK QUESTIONS before you buy further  inspired the Broad Meadows students even more to take actions each year to help some vulnerable or exploited peers to be free and in school.  ASK QUESTIONS. How else can YOU shop?
Ron Adams, retired Broad Meadows Middle School teacher
Acting National Director
the NY Times quotes Kernaghan
“Not to sound Pollyannish, but I believe there is a basic decency in the American people that these companies don’t understand,” Mr. Kernaghan told the Times in 1996, looking back on his early campaigns. “We have to try to tap this decency. When we do that, we get a tremendous response.”



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