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  • Volume Eight, Number Seven: October 2003

    Vancouver urged to adopt ethical purchasing regulations

    Dan Keeton

    The city of Vancouver has purchased firefighter apparel made in Burma, a Southeast Asian nation boycotted for the atrocious human rights record of the military junta that illegally rules the country.

    A collection of local activists has the evidence and is calling on the city to amend its purchasing policies to ensure that no goods made in international sweatshops are purchased again.

    Several Canadian city councils have already banned buying goods from Burma as part of a national campaign against third-world sweatshops. The activists, including labour and international solidarity reps and the local Burmese community, want the city to climb on board.

    At issue is the purchase of uniform parkas for Vancouver firefighters. The parkas were sold to the city by a Montreal firm, Evin Industries Ltd., which buys clothing from Burma, called Myanmar by its rulers.

    "Why should city of Vancouver firefighters be required to wear...something that is manufactured under the worst possible labour conditions in the whole world," said Bill Saunders, president of the Vancouver and District Labour Council.

    Burma has long been under the heel of a military junta accused of using forced and slave labour, and of ruthlessly suppressing dissidents. It was supposed to step aside in 1990 following the electoral sweep of a movement lead by democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi. Instead, the junta tightened its grip on the country and placed Suu Kyi under house arrest. Recently thugs linked to the junta attacked a march by supporters of the democratically elected government, killing and injuring several, and sexually assaulting women supporters. Suu Kyi has been incarcerated in prison since the attack.

    The harsh repression has drawn condemnation from the United Nations and sanctions from the United States, but Canada has lagged behind. "The official figures for 2000 show imports from Burma to Canada have trebled since 1997," charged Soe Kyaw Thu of the Action Committee for Free Burma.

    He called on the city to adopt ethical purchasing regulations and on the province to back a 1999 legislative resolution condemning Burma's junta and urging Ottawa to recognize the democratically elected Suu Kyi government. The Action Committee wants Canada to impose investment sanctions and "ban Canadian companies from doing business with the brutal regime."

    Terming Vancouver's purchase of the Burma-made parkas a "moral car wreck," Tom Sandborn of the BC Ethical Purchasing Group remarked, "I think we can be relatively confident that this particular horror show will be stopped." A mayor and councilors from the Coalition of Progressive Electors, a labour-backed civic alliance, dominate Vancouver city council.

    Burma is bad but is only one part of an international system of sweatshops. "Every sweatshop plant anywhere in the Third World or in the city of Vancouver is a little mini-Burma where people for profit can squeeze production out of the workers. It's absolutely unacceptable that we don't have the simple regulations in place," Sandborn declared. The ethical purchasing group has presented the city with a draft of suggested regulations and is calling for immediate action on the issue, he said.

    Councilor Jim Green of COPE said he was "shocked" to hear that the firefighter department had purchased the Burma-manufactured parkas. "Everyone's going to have a much more critical eye about purchases in the future," he added.

    Green couldn't give a time when council would discuss the issue of implementing ethical standards but noted the city has been looking at models such as Toronto's No Sweat campaign. He said council has a guarantee that all purchasing for the 2010 Winter Olympics will be local and manufactured according to Canadian labour standards.

    Canadian Labour and other groups have been waging a national campaign against low-wage sweatshops for several years. A national organization, the Ethical Trading Action Group, has persuaded the cities of Toronto, Victoria, Moose Jaw, Windsor and Saskatoon to adopt ethical purchasing rules.


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