Tri-Star Apparel good eye opener

By Vision Reporter

Added 28th October 2003 03:00 AM

Letter from Toronto

LAST Thursday, while Uganda riot-police was busy subduing the rebellion by the so-called AGOA girls employed by Tri-Star Apparel, US police officers burst into several Wal-Mart Department chain stores in 21 states and arrested about 300 illegal immigrants w

Letter from Toronto

By Opiyo Oloya

LAST Thursday, while Uganda riot-police was busy subduing the rebellion by the so-called AGOA girls employed by Tri-Star Apparel, US police officers burst into several Wal-Mart Department chain stores in 21 states and arrested about 300 illegal immigrants working as cleaners.

Yet, why would a trillion-dollar company like Wal-Mart whose 2002 annual earning was $224.5 billion (US), roughly equal the Gross Domestic Products for the entire African continent ($316.2 billion in 1998), risk breaking the law by hiring a bunch of illegal aliens to do its dirty work?

The answer to this question is at the very root of the plights of the AGOA girls in Uganda, and many like them throughout the developing countries where labour is cheaper than disposable diaper. In a single word that even a six-year old can understand, it’s about greed.

In the last two decades, huge American and European retail corporations like Wal-Mart, Nike, Reebok, Mark and Spencer and the Gap made two very smart observations. First, they observed that it’s too expensive to produce merchandise, say underwear, in America or Canada or UK because tough labour laws require that workers be paid a high minimum wage as well as benefits.

Secondly, the corporations also observed that instead of paying an American or Canadian worker $8 hourly wage to sew 10 underwear, you could pay a Thai or Filipino or Uganda worker a mere $0.45 per hour to sew the same 10 underwear. For example, according to a U.S. Department of Labour report released on February 17, 1998, the minimum wage in Honduras was $0.43 per hour or $3.47 per day.

Consequently, brand-name American and European companies now make billion of dollars in profit by moving factories to poorer countries such as Indonesia, Panama, United Arab Emirates, Sri Lanka, Vietnam, Haiti, China, Philippines, India, Morocco, Bangladesh, Mexico, Honduras, and lately, under AGOA to a handful of sub-Saharan African countries. Levi-Strauss, the very American icon founded 150 years ago by a Bavarian family to make jeans for gold-miners in San Francisco, that made over $4.2 billion last year, is the latest company to announce factory closure in Canada and the USA in favour of operations overseas.

About 37,000 workers in Canada and the US will be out of work when the company closes its shops next March.

However, to avoid being labelled as “sweatshop companies” that make huge profits on the back of poorly paid slave workers, lesser known companies registered mostly in Asia, where there are no fear of US and European labour laws, are contracted to produce the merchandise. Today, Asian companies such as Taiwanese-based Pou Chen and Nien Hsing employ millions in huge factories in third world countries that supply the North American and European markets with footwear, garments and other products.

That, in a nutshell, is how Tri-Star Apparel Exports, the Sri-Lanka based company that employs the AGOA girls in Uganda, became a supplier. Founded by Deshabandu Kumar Dewapura in 1979 with just 10 machines and 15 employees, Tri-Star is now a global employer boasting dozens of factories in Sri Lanka, Kenya, Uganda, and Botswana that employ 15,000 workers producing 15 million pieces of garment. Its corporate clients include Ralph Lauren (2002 net revenue $2.3 billion), Gap (2002 net revenue, $7.0 billion), Guess (2002 net revenue $0.8 billion) and Limited Brands which owns Victoria’s secret line of clothing (2002 revenue, $8.4 billion). It recently signed a contract to supply two million pieces of baby and children wear every month to UK-based Grasshopper Holder, one of the largest EU garment suppliers.

Yet, despite the assurance of Mr Dewapura that Tri-Star’s “skilled workforce works towards increasing productivity and quality through a welfare package and incentive based on production targets”, the maltreatment of 265 AGOA girls is very similar to tactics used by other Asian-based companies in poor countries.

In El Salvador, for instance, when factory workers at the Taiwanese-owned Tainan factory organised a union, the company quickly suspended the workers on October 17, 2001 and boosted productions in other factories.

Earlier that year, when workers at Korean-based Kuk Dong factory in Peubla, Mexico, which supplies Nike and Reebok shoes went on strike to protest labour right abuses, including forced overtime, low wages, verbal abuses and lack of benefits, the company responded by shutting down operations for nine months.

Tri-Star Apparel, in other words, is doing what other Asian multinationals are good at doing, namely finding cheap labour, exploiting it to make high quality merchandise for their big American and European corporate customers. Secondly, when the exploited workers begin to organise to stop the abuses, either these companies threaten to move their business somewhere else or label the workers as “a bunch of trouble-makers” and sack them. As Mr Dewapura puts it on his website, “When it comes to service, you better ask our customers—content customers.”

So far, Tri-Star Apparel appears to have successfully tarnished the reputation of the sacked AGOA girls as no-good idlers. No less a person than the presidential assistant on AGOA, Ms Susan Muhwezi, is reported to have said, “We gave them the skills and it’s a free market; they can walk out and go elsewhere if they are not satisfied.” Next article — How the dismissed AGOA girls will get Tri-Star Apparel back to the negotiation table
in a hurry.

Tri-Star Apparel good eye opener

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