June 25, 2008 -- Student anti-sweatshop activists are ratcheting up their pressure on actor Jennifer Love Hewitt for her celebrity endorsement arrangement with underwear maker Hanesbrands, which stands accused of exploitative labor practices.
Since last year, groups including United Students Against Sweatshops and the Worker Rights Consortium have pushed for Hewitt to take a stand against the alleged unfair and abusive labor practices by Hanesbrands managers at its factory in the Dominican Republic. In response, they contacted Hanesbrands, and "were advised. . . that the claims of the student unions were unwarranted, without merit and were being resolved" by talking with the Dominican workers, according to Hewitt's lawyer, Robert Wallerstein.
Now USAS, whose members are college and university students, has posted a website attacking the star of CBS' "Ghost Whisperer," www.JenniferLovesSweatshops.com. WRC, which has also pushed for Hewitt to take action, denies any involvement in the site.
"We respect your accomplished career as an actor," USAS says to Hewitt in an open letter posted on the site's home page. "As a spokesperson for Hanes, however, you are selling products made in unsafe factories overseas where women are abused." The group calls on Hewitt to "stop selling Hanes sweatshop underwear."
Hewitt has appeared in print and television ads for Hanes since 2005. "Jennifer Love thinks they're perfect," reads the copy to one print ad.
USAS spokesman Zack Knorr cited Hewitt's "strong stance" last year on the media's portrayal of the female body, prompted by paparazzi photos of her in a bikini. "It would be great if she would do the same thing in this case."
"A size 2 is not fat! Nor will it ever be," Hewitt wrote in her blog at the time. "To all girls with butts, boobs, hips and a waist, put on a bikini – put it on and stay strong."
One of the shots graced the cover of People magazine with the headline, "Stop Calling Me Fat!" On its site, USAS paired it with a cover for a fake "Worker" magazine showing a woman with a drawn face and the headline, "Stop Starving Me!" A footnote explains the quote is not attributable to an actual Hanes worker and the photo is not of a Hanes employee.
Hewitt's lawyer decried USAS' actions. "The website which is the basis of your article is clearly intended to damage my client's reputation by misrepresenting the truth," Wallerstein wrote in an email to ABC News. "We trust that your article will not distort Ms. Hewitt's involvement in this matter."
"Ms. Hewitt is not an employee of Hanes nor can she prevent Hanes from running commercials Hanes owns," Wallerstein said. "Ms. Hewitt of course supports the rights of all workers to have safe working conditions, fair wages, and reasonable work hours."
To justify its campaign against the company and Hewitt, USAS cites a June 2007 investigation by the Washington, D.C.-based Workers Rights Consortium which said it found, among other issues, that Hanesbrands managers at its Dominican plant pressured employees to sign contracts which stripped them of health care and life insurance they previously had. USAS says the company has also proposed a three-year wage freeze for the plant's workers. The company and WRC estimate the average wage of a worker at Hanes' Dominican factory at between $1 and $1.50 an hour.
Hanesbrand spokesman Matt Hall called USAS' claims "ridiculous," though he said later the wage freeze "could have been part of an offer" during contract negotiations, which are ongoing.
"Why they're going out and spewing these sorts of things is incomprehensible," said Hall. He said group was "trying to pick fights with celebrities and other people, it just doesn't make any sense." Hall said there was no truth to the findings of the WRC investigation, which were "hyperbole, viewpoint-driven" by the group, which he alleged was "funded by organized labor."
WRC says it takes no money from unions or private companies, but gets its funding from universities, the U.S. Department of State, and charitable foundations unconnected to unions or manufacturers. A union economist and several members of USAS sit on the group's 15-member governing board, but WRC does not coordinate its actions with either group, according to its executive director, Scott Nova.
"We have absolute confidence in the veracity of our conclusions, some of which have been confirmed by Hanes' own admissions," Nova told ABC News. He noted that after his group released its findings on the Dominican factory last year, Hanesbrands changed its overtime policy at the plant.
"We have to keep this plant economically viable," Hanesbrands spokesman Hall said while discussing the workers' economic demands, such as wage increases. "In 1965, our T-shirts were advertised, a 5-pack for $4.99. Today you can go out to a store and find a 7-pack for $4.99," he said. "Those are the economics of the apparel business."
Hewitt is not the first celebrity to find herself in USAS' sights for working with Hanesbrands. Last year USAS launched a campaign themed "Six Degrees of Exploitation," targeting actor Kevin Bacon, who was also a celebrity model for the manufacturer.
Bacon's publicist told ABC News the campaign began just as Kevin's contract was ending, but that he helped arrange a meeting between USAS and Hanesbrands to discuss the students' concerns.