WASHINGTON — The American Apparel & Footwear Association is calling for an immediate ban on U.S. apparel, footwear and textile imports from Myanmar in light of a recent government report depicting deteriorating human rights conditions.
This story first appeared in the April 16, 2003 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
Kevin Burke, president and chief executive officer of AAFA, said Tuesday that the government of Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, “continues to abuse its citizens through force and intimidation, and refuses to respect the basic human rights of its people.”
Burke said, “AAFA believes this unacceptable behavior should be met with condemnation from not only the international public community, but from private industry, as well.”
He acknowledged that the association cannot guarantee that all of its 483 members do not source in Myanmar, but he said many companies have stopped sourcing there.
“We as an association made the decision to oppose production in Burma and my hope is that others [who still produce there] will see the light and stop,” said Burke. “But we can’t tell them what to do.”
He said the Myanmar government’s inaction is completely at odds with the group’s mission statement, which calls for workers to be treated fairly and with respect. It is the first time the association has ever taken a stance against a country and advocated a ban, Burke said.
The call for a ban echoes what human rights and labor groups have been advocating for years. The U.S. and other countries have imposed wide-ranging sanctions on Myanmar, including cutting off investment and diplomatic ties, as well as international aid.
In 1997, President Bill Clinton signed a ban on all new investment in the country, but apparel contracting at Burmese-owned or jointly owned ventures did not fall under that ban.
Military rulers seized the country in a bloody coup and refused to yield control to the opposition, National League for Democracy, after it won by a landslide in 1989. Since then, the country has become a pariah, known for its appalling record on human rights abuses.
Human rights activists have persuaded several well-known apparel retailers and manufacturers to stop buying products or making products in Myanmar, according to the Free Burma Coalition, a Washington-based nonprofit group that organized a boycott campaign in a fight to unseat the country’s military regime.
Over the past three years, 39 retailers and manufacturers have banned sourcing in the country or refused to buy products made there, according to the coalition. Among the companies it claims have said “no” to Myanmar are Federated Department Stores, Jones Apparel Group, Tommy Hilfiger, Wal-Mart, Dress Barn and Ross Stores.
Saks Inc., the most recent retailer to take a position, said in March the company’s policy is not to buy merchandise manufactured in Myanmar and the buyers are so instructed, according to the coalition, which has posted a letter from a Saks executive on its Web site. Saks officials could not be reached for comment, but Federated confirmed that it will not buy products from the country.
Despite the recent move out of Myanmar, a sizable portion of apparel is still produced in the country and shipped to the U.S. For the year ending Feb. 28, apparel and textile imports from Myanmar totaled 159.76 million square meters equivalent and were valued at $315.3 million.
While imports of women’s and girls’ cotton knit blouses fell by 13 percent to 21.6 million SME for the year, imports of cotton underwear rose by 7.2 percent to 17.66 million SME, as did imports of other man-made fiber coats, which rose 2.37 percent to 22.915 million SME.
“We’ve pushed Made in Burma products out of the high-end retail market and into the discount market,” said Dan Beeton, director of campaigns at the Free Burma Coalition. “It’s really companies that don’t have a name brand reputation that we now have to worry about.”
He claimed it will be much harder to push discounters, which often carry lesser-known labels, out of Burma due to a lack of consumer awareness.
Of the AAFA’s new stance, Beeton said, “It’s very significant in that it shows this is now an extremely mainstream thing for the industry to do. It shows that Burma is a pariah nation and is so notorious in its human rights abuses that no apparel company wants to be associated with the country.”