by Josh Grossberg
Dec 9, 2004, 2:00 PM PT
The high-powered teen titans have pledged to make sure their signature clothing line for Wal-Mart will not be produced in sweatshops.
The former child stars were targeted by the National Labor Committee and student activists from the twins' college, New York University, who sent an open letter Wednesday to the Olsens asking them to sign a petition to force Wal-Mart to guarantee female workers who make the clothing in factories in Bangladesh the "legal right to maternity leave with benefits."
The letter claimed the twins' company, DualStar Entertainment, refused hundreds of appeals over the last seven months to disclose the names of the Bangladesh factories where the Mary-Kate and Ashley brand is being manufactured so the NLC can ensure the women working there are aware of their legal rights.
"It is only through this simply and doable step that the women in these factories can be alerted that their legal maternity rights will now be respected, and that a system can be established to verify compliance," wrote Charles Kernaghan, the NLC's director.
Stating that the letter is in no way meant "as a personal attack" against the Olsens, Kernaghan urged the superstars to "do the right thing by standing up to defend the rights of other young teenage women across the developing world who are sewing their garments."
Kernaghan cited statistics showing that exploited workers in certain factories work 14 hour days, seven days a week, while making a sweatshop wage of just 13 to 18 cents per hour without being able to take three months paid leave to care for their own children, a benefit that they are entitled to by law. Many of those female laborers are often fired or harassed until they quit should they attempt to do so.
To get their point, Kernaghan and the NYU chapter of United Students Against Sweatshops decided to make the Olsens the focus of Thursday night's march and candlelight vigil at New York's Washington Square Park.
"The NYU students and I would like to invite Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen to attend tomorrow's events to sign the pledge, at which point the banners will be rolled up, the demonstration will be canceled and we will hold a brief celebration to thank Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen for doing the right thing," the letter continued. "This could be a win-win situation for the Olsens, the NYU students and for young women garment workers across Bangladesh."
NYU's student paper, Washington Square News, also called on the actresses to get involved in affording garment workers maternity leave, citing Wal-Mart's dubious track record as the world's largest retailer in using sweatshops and routinely intimidating and firing workers who tried to organize labor unions.
"It would be scandalous for Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen, who are held up as examples of successful, independent, young women, to deny this most basic right to the women producing their clothing line," stated the paper.
Looking to avoid becoming the next Kathie Lee Gifford, the Olsens decided to play ball.
The sisters' rep, Michael Pagnotta, told E! Online that the Olsens were never aware of the group's petition, but he was confident their company's retail vendors "were being asked to adhere to the most rigorous standards."
"Signing it was never an issue for us," said Pagnotta. "I think what [the labor activists] were suggesting is that Mary-Kate and Ashley refused to sign a petition. But they had never seen it."
Pagnotta said DualStar reps had been in talks with the NLC since Wednesday, and once Mary-Kate and Ashley took a look at the maternity-leave pledge and evaluated it, they readily signed.
The pledge reads: "On behalf of the DualStar Entertainment Group LLC, I Mary-Kate Olsen hereby sign this pledge that to the best of our abilities we will guarantee that any woman sewing our garments in Bangladesh will be afforded her legal maternity leave of at least three months with full pay." It was signed by Mary-Kate and dated Dec. 9.
Earlier Thursday, the twins' attorney, Stanton L. Stein, replied to Kernaghan with a letter stating that the Olsens were "immediately responsive upon learning of the issue," but due to "serious security concerns," they would not be able to attend tonight's gathering.
He also called on the NLC to honor its promise to cancel the demonstration and instead hold a brief celebration announcing his clients' support and thanking them.
In his letter, Stein also defended the Olsens, arguing that while Kernaghan stated that his group was not personally admonishing them, the resulting media coverage had framed it as a "personal attack" on the girls, whom he said are "completely blameless."
"Still, they have chosen to raise their voices to help improve the lives of workers and their families and should be appropriately recognized for doing so," he added.
By Thursday evening, the NLC released a statement reading in part, "The Olsen twins have done the right thing. Now it is up to Wal-Mart to either support Mary-Kate and Ashley’s commitment to women’s rights, or tragically to shut them down."
The Olsens aren't the first celebs to get schooled by labor activists. Last year, the NLC accused rap mogul Sean "P. Diddy" Combs's Sean John fashion line of using sweatshop labor in Honduras, claims which were later denied by government officials.
In the '90s, the group was also successful in holding Gifford responsible for labor abuses against Salvadoran workers who made the former talk show queen's signature Wal-Mart clothes under horrible conditions.