Knock Off the Knock-Offs

You know, sweatshops have really come a long way since their inception as a friendly, safe environment in which workers celebrated their jobs manufacturing wearables for the masses.

Most people who purchase fake Prada bags and knock-off Luis Vuitton luggage probably don't associate their new wares with children chained to sewing machines. But according to Ed Kelly, an attorney who spoke Wednesday at the International Anticounterfeiting Coalition's annual fall conference here, that's exactly what you're supporting when you buy the things.

Kelly is an attorney with Tilleke and Gibbins International, a law firm in Southeast Asia specializing in defending intellectual property, i.e., thwarting the people who copy brand-name products, from shoes to hand bags to motorcycles. Aside from economic problems such as lost sales, profits and tax revenues, "the emotionally compelling element of counterfeiting is the exploitation," Kelly says. "You have children 11, 12, 13 years old working in these sweatshop conditions."

In his presentation at the Adam's Mark hotel, he showed slides of teenagers assembling fake Mercedes motorcycles and a Bangladeshi girl pounding on batteries for use in counterfeits. Many children are lured into slavery under false pretenses, told they'll be working as nannies or maids in someone's home only to find themselves enslaved by black market manufacturers. According to Kevin Bales' Disposable People: New Slavery in the Global Economy, more than 27 million people worldwide are trapped in bondage.

Now, the question you're probably asking is: What's the difference between these counterfeit workers and the ones that make authentic clothes sold at places like Wal-Mart and Target, not to mention everything else we buy from China? Ed Kelly's answer: At least corporations are held accountable. When and if labor abuses are brought to light, companies face plummeting share prices and boycotts. Take Nike, for example, which was targeted for using sweatshop labor and has since opened the Nike Village Development Project in Asia to extend microcredits to small businesses and provide job alternatives to counterfeiting. (As a side note, Kelly and his wife manage micro-finance projects in Thai villages and maintain a working rice farm in rural Buriram.)

The other thing that distinguishes counterfeiters from legal businesses is that they're usually doing more than making knock-off Gucci bags. Many are enmeshed in organized crime, says Kelly, as well as drug trafficking, prostitution and sexual slavery. One group he mentioned was a European motorcycle gang called the Bandidos, known for making fake passports and selling drugs.

"Often, you see these guys walking down the streets with 15-year-old girls," he said. He also mentioned Big Apple Oriental Tours, a New York company indicted in 2004 for promoting prostitution. Such groups are "all part of the same coordinated activitity [as counterfeiters], the same circles," Kelly says. So, think twice before buying another fake designer bag out of some guy's trunk. Think of the shackled Bangladeshi girl. --Megan Feldman

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky