State Probes Cult in Child-Labor Scandal

NY 9, 2001
By Jeane Macintosh

A bizarre upstate cult that uses unpaid kid laborers to churn out products - some in Robert Redford's catalog - is under scrutiny by state labor officials following a Post report on their practices.

In the wake of The Post's report Sunday on the Twelve Tribes cult's child-labor practices, the state Labor Department has "launched an official investigation in the matter," says Betsy McCormack, a state Labor Department spokeswoman. The case is also being closely monitored by the state Attorney General's Office for criminal wrongdoing. "Common-law apprenticeship is just another word for indentured servitude, which is illegal," said Marc Violette, spokesman for Attorney General Eliot Spitzer.

Twelve Tribes spokeswoman Jean Swantko blasted the controversy as "a lot of smoke and no fire." "All these things that they're saying are alleged," said Swantko, who said she has not been contacted by the Labor Department. "I believe that the things we do are protected by the law."

As reported by The Post, Redford's Sundance catalog has moved to quit doing business with the group, after learning Twelve Tribes allows children to work alongside their parents in its Common Wealth furniture factory, which has been selling products through Sundance for two years.

With few exceptions, children under 14 are prohibited from working, according to New York's stringent labor laws. In New York, children under 16 can't work on a factory floor. Kids under 18 cannot work in construction, or operate power-driven woodworking tools, circular saws or other similar machines. "The definition of work," McCormack said, "is 'being suffered or permitted to work.'" Even if a minor child wants to pitch in with parents, he can't.

Generally, youth must be 18 to qualify as apprentices, and programs must be tied to a high school vocational program. None of the Twelve Tribe groups is registered with the state as apprenticeship sponsors.

In February, cosmetics giant Estée Lauder severed ties with the group amid questions about the ages of workers in another Twelve Tribes factory that had made Lauder's "Origins" products.

Twelve Tribes is led by Elbert Eugene Spriggs, who believes his is the only "true" church.

Members live communally, supporting themselves by making candles, soaps, furniture and other products that are sold through various business arms, including Common Wealth furniture and Common Sense natural products.

Its racist teachings and a strict child-discipline policy have brought the group considerable controversy.

According to founder Spriggs, "Submission to [white people] is the only provision by which [blacks] will be saved."

He also advocates beating children with resin-dipped rods when they misbehave, because "the only way to erase the guilt in a child's selfish heart is with the rod."

Children start working alongside parents as young as 6 years old.

"Like any family-owned business, the children help the parents," Twelve Tribes said in a statement. "We believe in this and make no apologies." "If you define 'factory' in legal terms - where there's mass production and those kinds of things - that's different than what our cottage industries are," Swantko added.

"Our businesses are owned by the members of [our] community. It's not like you have a sweatshop scene. It's not a cause for alarm. Yes, we have fathers and sons working together and mothers and daughters, so it's easy to throw stones. But we don't have children in there being a backbone of industry," Swantko said.

Estée Lauder, however, apparently believed the group's Common Sense facility in Cambridge, N.Y.- which for several years produced Origins' Dead Sea Salt scrub and Step Lively foot cream - qualified as a factory.

In 1998 the cosmetics giant helped Common Sense land a $500,000 interest-free loan.

But Origins auditors grew concerned during a February inspection that, sources said, turned up minors working to fill orders.

"When Common Sense couldn't give us a satisfactory explanation, we terminated our contract," said an Origins spokeswoman.

"This was not something that was done hastily and without thought," an Estée Lauder source said. "Origins had a considerable amount invested in Common Sense. But noncompliance with labor laws is a serious issue."

Sundance has followed suit. Common Wealth products account for a very marginal amount Sundance's overall business.

Both Sundance and Origins said the Twelve Tribes companies had submitted paperwork affirming they were in compliance with labor and other regulations.

"It's distressing to me [that] Sundance or Estée Lauder are put in this fear mode of not wanting to look bad," Swantko said. "Needless to say, Estée Lauder's got a worldwide reputation to protect. These are choices that Estée Lauder made. It doesn't mean they had to make those choices."

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