March 13, 2002
Residents in Northumberland County are being asked to cut out the labels in their clothing this month as part of a campaign to change regulations for the textile industry. The goal is to force these companies to disclose information allowing consumers to make better decisions when buying clothing and stop sweatshop practices around the world.
The idea comes from the Maquila Solidarity Network, a Canadian organization promoting support for groups in Mexico, Central America, and Asia. These groups represent maquiladora factories and export processing zones that want to improve conditions and win a living wage. The network feels it is essential groups in the North and South work together for employment with dignity, fair wages and working conditions, and healthy workplaces and communities.
It released a damning report last Friday (March 8) regarding labour practices in Nike and Adidas factories in Indonesia. While some improvement are noted, there are still many problems, which keep the people working in the factories poor, isolated and humiliated.
It is encouraging to see local high school students embracing the label campaign. The ability to raise awareness in these young people means they will hopefully become smarter, more socially responsible consumers.
Unfortunately, other parts of the community is not so swift in picking up the importance of these initiatives. The last time sweatshop labour got a good public airing locally was the Wal-Mart debate in the summer of 2000. Again, members of Horizons of Friendship made a solid effort to try and raise awareness, but with minimal response.
Yet it is impossible to ignore what is going on. The recent documentary aired on CBC Disclosure brought to light the practices of Montreal-based Gildan Activewear, one of North America’s major suppliers of T-shirts. The 5,000 Honduran workers who pump out these garments are the focus of the story. The complaints against the company include unrealistic quotas; monitored bathroom breaks, breathing air full of cotton dust and the threat of being fired if they try to organize a union. It is only one example.
Nobody is suggesting these workers be given Canadian-level wages. But a fair, living wage, a safe work environment, the ability to freely associate and some basic dignity is not a lot to ask.
So cutting the labels out of clothes is a catchy way to raise awareness. However, more must be done in Northumberland. And it should not be up to this under-funded non-government organization to carry the ball entirely. Horizons of Friendship does good work as it provides global education programs in schools and churches. It has limited resources for a larger outreach into the community.
So the debate continues for some in the community. Often these are like-minded people are speaking with each other about issues of common concern. They will be the first to remove their labels. But more can and should be done to reach out to others who are traditionally less friendly.
First, municipal leaders must step forward. An anti-sweatshop campaign in Bangor, Maine began in 1998 called the Clean Clothes Campaign. It was the first community-based campaign against sweatshops in the global clothing industry world-wide. It was motivated by the massive job loss of 7,500 workers in Maine’s textile industry.
The idea was simple. Locally made clothing in stores were placed in Clean Clothes sections. Retail staff were trained to respond to concerns that buyers might have about selecting clothing not made in sweatshops. Store owners expressed their concerns directly to suppliers.
It was so successful, the state government passed legislation in May 2001 called the Anti-sweatshop Purchasing Bill demanding government contractors supply goods not produced in sweatshops. It also spent $100,000 in developing consumer information.
In the United States, if two per cent of the population became involved in similar conscientious buying habits, suppliers would be forced to change the way they do business, according to the Clean Clothes Campaign.
If municipal councils took on a similar campaign in Northumberland the results could be stunning and draw a lot of positive response from local shoppers as well as those who visit here. It would not have to be complicated. It would just be a matter of providing a clear choice for consumers.
Second, the chambers of commerce and downtown business improvement areas in Port Hope and Cobourg should also join in. The Retail Council of Canada has set out its own set of responsible trade guidelines, so local retailers can feel they are not alone. There are some clear policies already in place.
The first step can be taken next week when Horizon’s visitor from Mexico arrives on March 20. This woman actually works in a maquila factory. Her first-hand experience could provide credible information and raise awareness for politicians and business leaders. No doubt a meeting would be welcomed and start the ball rolling. Then, working with community groups, chambers, non-government organizations and municipal staff, a campaign could be launched.
If done properly, this should not hurt sales, but improve them. And, more importantly, place pressure on the right people to make changes in the labour conditions in developing nations. Our success would enhance our profile as a community and be a demonstration of ethical business, both municipal and retail.
In a world reeling from the Enron scandal in the United States, and the Ontario Securities Commission’s judgement on Michael Copeland for unfair stock trading, it might be nice to know there are people who want to do business in an ethical manner with a strong social conscience. Some of them live in Northumberland County.