Made in…Myanmar?

Garment worker in Myanmar garment factory. (Photo by triplepundit.com.)

Garment worker in Myanmar garment factory. (Photo by triplepundit.com.)

I‘ll not even pretend that I wasn’t aware of third-world sweat shops when I purchased and wore garments produced under horrible factory conditions by workers paid as little as $60 a month. Bangladesh, Malaysia, Cambodia, India and Indonesia are all home to such garment factories, and while China is certainly not considered a Third World country, you can imagine its factory workers are not all receiving a living wage either.

No matter the brand name – Nygård, Joe Fresh, George, Nike, Puma, Adidas — just about every company that produces apparel and footwear of any sort is paying abysmally low wages to people who work long hours to meet production quotas before turning off their sewing machines and heading home. Add to the list Canadian Tire, which recently acquired Helly Hansen, a famous Norwegian clothing company previously owned by the Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan. It took some digging, but I discovered that Helly Hansen clothing is manufactured “in the Far East.”

But what really caused me to stop and consider the entire fashion industry, including such names as Lord & Taylor and Loblaws, was when I picked up a top by Alia — a brand owned by Canada’s largest fashion house, Nygård — and saw that it had been manufactured in, get this, Myanmar! Myanmar, which has been in the news because of the treatment of its Muslim minority, the Rohingya, by its Buddhist majority. (See my earlier article.) What I really found unbelievable is that Peter Nygård, the company’s founder and head, would set up shop in a country where human rights are trampled, where the military has destroyed villages and where talk of allowing the Rohingya to return is more a joke than a serious conversation.

 

The last time I really thought about where my clothing was made was in April 2013, when I heard about the collapse of the Rana Plaza, a five-story garment factory in Dhaka, Bangladesh, which killed 1,134 workers, injured 2,500 and woke the world up to the horrible and dangerous conditions under which garment workers had been laboring for years. New York University’s Stern Center for Business and Human Rights  conducted a two-year investigation into the Rana Plaza disaster. In the resulting report, issued in April 2018, researchers noted that because of “uncertainty” over the number of contractors in Bangladesh, there is no consensus as to something as basic as how many factories in the country make clothing for export:

Comparing various databases, the NYU Stern Center in 2015 calculated a total of about 7,100. Using a similar methodology, BRAC University’s Centre for Entrepreneurship Development in Dhaka in 2016 generated a count of more than 8,000.

Following the Rana Plaza tragedy, two groups were established to do factory inspections and oversee remediations — the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, made up of European retailers like Hennes & Mauritz (H&M) and trade union partners; and the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety, made up of Walmart, Gap and other North American companies. Together, according to the Stern Center report, they cover about 2,300 active factories in Bangladesh while the Bangladeshi government retains oversight for another 1,650 or so, but this “leaves out a very large number of additional factories — and their workers.”

Other groups, like the Clean Clothes Campaign, an alliance of labor unions and non-government organizations (NGOs), are tackling the issue of low wages in the garment industry. As Chris White reported in the South China Morning Post in April:

The Asian garment factory industry is worth more than US$600 billion a year, with the likes of Bangladesh and Cambodia relying on it for more than 75 per cent of their exports. Many of the 60 million who work in the garment industry are still poorly paid, earning US$100 a month or less in the newly emerging cheap labour nations…

According to White, Bangladesh has become “more callous” in its treatment of unions, even jailing leaders for organizing peaceful protests for higher wages. And Christie Miedema of the Clean Clothes Campaign told White that “Every demand for higher wages is crushed ruthlessly.”

And it’s not that Bangladeshi factory workers aren’t skilled — I can attest that much of the clothing produced in the many factories by low-paid workers is well-made and lasts for years, that’s why some of my stuff is 15 to 20 years old. (It’s the polyester-cotton mix no doubt. Polyester is akin to armor, although armor would be heavier, noisier and not nearly so comfortable).

On the other hand, low garment-industry wages are not news. As far back as 1996, CBS News reported that Vietnamese workers in Nike Town were being paid 20 cents an hour to produce Air Jordans while Michael Jordan was pulling down $20 million annually promoting them. And back in 1999, as Jennifer Wells recounted in The Star in 2013, a bilateral trade agreement between the US and Cambodia was supposed to result in improved labor standards for Cambodian workers. An organization called Better Factories Cambodia (BFC), based in Phnom Phenh, was established to inspect factories and produce regular reports that were to be made public. At the end of 2004, when the trade agreement expired, Cambodia was fast-tracked to join the World Trade Organization and, Wells explains:

As garment factories spread like wildfire in Phnom Penh and as garment exports exploded, transparency was abandoned. BFC adopted a policy of disclosing audits only to its paid subscriber base, and fewer than two-thirds of that subscriber base bothered to even take delivery of the BFC reports. Whether any remedial action was taken on those audits was anyone’s guess.

 

Like anyone in the business of making money by making clothes, Peter Nygård, would no doubt say he is providing work for thousands in the Third World. But the world knows the wages paid to these workers are nothing like what Nygård himself earns. He ranked 93rd on the Canadian Business “rich list” in 2015, which explains his Bahamian home with the 32,000-square-foot grand ballroom and 100,000-pound glass ceiling. (Sadly, the home was destroyed by fire in 2009, but fear not, he’s still ensconced in what he was able to restore of it.)

Most of the copious ink spilled over Nygård concentrates on his glamorous life (he’s served on international boards, advised Canadian governments on all matters trade related and received Queen Elizabeth’s 2013 Diamond Jubilee Medal). But in 2017, he found himself the subject of a less flattering piece in The Star after the Clean Clothes Campaign flagged his company as one of those buying from a Cambodian company — Chung Fai Knitwear — that closed in 2016 owing wages and severances to over 200 workers.

Nygård’s latest undertaking involves stem cell research which he says will reverse ageing and could even make him immortal. Cardboard cutouts of himself displaying his bulging biceps can be seen in most Alia stores, even here in Sydney, no doubt as part of his company’s ongoing 50th anniversary celebrations, and while it’s been said that he will give long-time employees a bonus of $10,000, there seems to be no mention of any increases in the wages paid workers in the factories that make his clothing.

To buy or not to buy is an ethical dilemma, given that so many long-suffering workers depend on their meager salaries to live even at a subsistence level, while Nygård receives stem cell injections, parties on and laughs all the way to the bank. Perhaps he skips his way to the bank after the injections. All I  know for sure that nothing “Made in Myanmar” will adorn my ageing body.

Featured image: Garment workers at Korean-owned factory in Pyin Ma Bin Industrial Estate in Yangon, Myanmar by Philip Heijmans (cropped). Source: Myanmar Times 

 

Dolores Campbell

 

Dolores Campbell, a lifelong resident of Sydney, is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in The Cape Breton Highlander, the Nova Scotian, Cape Breton Magazine, Catholic New Times and The Cape Breton Post.

 

 

 

 

 

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