as the proud flame of the olympic torch made its way from the birthplace of democracy to the land of the free, two American torchbearers discovered that their official uniforms had been made in a land of forced labour and flagrant human rights abuses -- Myanmar (formerly known as Burma). "I was shocked to find out that our uniforms were made in Burma," says Philadelphia relay runner Leslie Kretzu, who also works for the American anti-sweatshop group Educating for Justice.
Myanmar has been on the hit list of international labour bodies and NGOs for decades. Most recently, the International Labour Organization cautioned governments and businesses to reconsider their ties with the brutal regime. Even the U.S. Department of State has documented the Burmese garment industry's ties to systemic forced labour. Pressure from NGOs like the Free Burma Coalition has forced over 30 companies, including Wal-Mart, to stop subcontracting or buying products from the country.
Marker Ltd., the official uniform supplier of the 2002 Winter Games, has not.
"There are very few name-brand companies that still (out)source or retail products from Burma," says Free Burma Coalition campaign director Dan Beeton. "We were pretty surprised that the Olympics would be associated with this in any way."
Marker admits it knowingly subcontracted the uniforms from a company in Burma, but "there was a certain fabric made (in Burma) that they wanted or needed to use." Plus, "Myanmar is an approved trading partner of the U.S., and the feeling is that if U.S. customs has approved it, then it should be OK."
Neil Kearney, general secretary of the International Textile Garment and Leather Workers' Federation, disagrees. "By sourcing their official (torchbearer) outfits in Burma, and thus bankrolling a dictatorship that has jailed, tortured, killed and displaced millions, Marker Ltd. has made a mockery of the Olympic slogan "Celebrating Humanity.'"
The Salt Lake Olympic Committee defends its use of the uniforms by telling the press the uniforms weren't made in Burma, they were made in Myanmar. Apparently, the committee hadn't conducted enough research to know that the tags themselves list both the country's former and current name for all to see.
While Olympic officials skirt the controversy in Salt Lake, Roots, the official outfitter of American, Canadian and British Olympic athletes, dodged its own sourcing controversy here in Toronto as protestors once again gathered outside its Eaton Centre location on Monday.
Roots has declared that all its Olympic wear is made in Canada, but Students Against Sweatshops (SAS) is demanding that the company open up about where its other clothes are made. Says SAS member Paul Barrett, "We're trying to dialogue with the company, but we're meeting walls at every single turn."
Roots says it has disclosed everything and has nothing to hide. A company spokesperson explains why they won't disclose factory locations: "Our factories change so much, so the information that we would give them, by the time they would get it, would be obsolete."
"We don't buy it," says Ian Thompson of the Maquila Solidarity Network, a local organization that is also pressuring Roots to disclose the factory locations of its contractors and subcontractors around the globe. "The only factory location they've shared with us is the one in Toronto. That's not very forthcoming."