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Rangoon Sweat Shops under Fire

AUTHOR : William Barnes in the South China Morning Post
VIA : The Rangoon Post - Free Burma Independent Media
DATE:  Tuesday, July 11, 2000
 Hong Kong factory owners have become the target of activists in the United
 States after helping to fuel a sharp rise in Burma's clothing exports to
 the world's most lucrative consumer market.
 Garment makers operating in the military-run country are able to pay
 perhaps the lowest rates for piece work - as little as four US cents an
 hour, claims the New York-based National Labour Committee (NLC).  This is
 significantly lower than even the hourly take-home pay of so-called "sweat
 shop" workers in Bangladesh, 13-20 US cents, Indonesia, 20 US cents, or the
 mainland, 28 US cents, the NLC said.
 Moreover, the workers' rights group complained, profits from clothing
 factories in Burma go directly to help an unpopular, incompetent and widely
 criticised regime stay in power.
 "This is the worst sort of labour exploitation - it is the height of
 irresponsibility," said Phil Robertson, the Thailand country director of
 the Solidarity Centre, an American non-government organisation concerned
 with labour issues. "Hong Kong factory owners who go in there are the
 lowest of the low as far as the international garment industry is
 concerned," he said.
 This is vigorously disputed by Jerry Pang, of Victoria Garments in Kowloon.
  "As far as we are concerned we are helping the people out. Our type of
 labour-intensive industry helps people the most in a poor country such as
 Burma," he said.  
 Burma's clothing exports to the US climbed by 85 per cent in the first
 quarter of this year, after rising by 45 per cent last year and 49 per cent
 in 1998.  According to a United States embassy commercial guide, in 1998
 there were about 30 textile and garment factories in Burma, at least half
 of them wholly or partly foreign-owned "mostly by Hong Kong or South Korean
 It said joint ventures were usually either with Burma Textile Industries, a
 state firm, or with the Union of Burma Economic Holdings, one of the
 military's commercial arms.
 There are other dangers. The NLC report noted that Wal-Mart Canada imported
 at least one shipload of garments this year from Every Green (Burma)
 Overseas - a factory controlled by former drug warlord Lo Hsing Han, whose
 son is banned from the US on suspicion of involvement in drug trafficking.
 The following factories have Hong Kong owners according to a recent
 official list of businesses: Burma Winner Garment Manufacturing, Burma
 Unimix International, Rangoon Knit Garment Manufacturing, Burma Euroworld
 International, Group Link (Burma), Rangoon Sportswear Manufacturing, Prime
 Industrial, Rangoon Garment Manufacturing, Yantzekiang Industries (Burma)
 and Eastern World. All, save the last two, are listed as joint ventures.
 The latest campaign against Burma-based garment makers points out the risks
 of doing business with a regime which has become a favourite target of
 Western activists.
 The NLC is sending stiff letters to the likes of Warner Bros, Bugle Boy,
 Jordache, Kohl's, Adidas and Nautica asking why they import from Burma.  
 Whereas activists want other cheap labour centres to adhere to minimal
 labour standards they argue that factory owners should steer clear of Burma
 "Burma has the worst name in the US. I can assure manufacturers that the
 American labour movement will run down every movement out of Burma," said
 Mr Robertson. "You cannot do business in Burma without consorting with the
 military dictatorship."
 US jeans-maker Levi Strauss pulled out of Burma saying: "Under current
 circumstances it is not possible to do business in Burma without directly
 supporting the military government and its pervasive violations of human
 The International Labour Organisation has suspended Burma, and asked its
 174 member countries to review their relations with it, because of the
 regime's widespread use of forced labour.
 In a sign of the power of lobby groups, the sportswear-maker Adidas quickly
 denied that it sources bags from Burma any longer. A company representative
 said pictures of "Adidas - Made in Burma labels" on the NLC Web site must
 either be old or of counterfeits.
 But, Mr Pang argued, sanctions hurt the very people they were designed to
 help: "No country is more sanctioned against than North Korea or Cuba yet
 they are still run by die-hard dictators. Only the people are suffering."
 When Victoria Garments opened its joint-venture factory - with the Ministry
 of Industry's textiles division in 1989 - more than 2,000 young Burmese
 queued in monsoon rain for 400 jobs.
 The group soon had four factories operating in the country.
 "They are proud people and proud people make good workers. They believe in
 what they are doing," Mr Pang said. "If you learn of the country from
 reading a newspaper you would not touch it with a 10-foot pole but in
 reality it is not so bad."  Mr Pang cited high literacy and more than 50
 per cent unemployment as creating a crying need for jobs.  "And Burma is a
 very good production place for us. There are no hidden costs. "I can tell
 you the country is relatively uncorrupt. Against Indonesia or the
 Philippines there is no comparison."