There are so many beavers, flags and red-and-white tuques in the Roots Eaton Centre store, you might confuse it with a highway tourist shop were it not for all the logos. But the clothing chain that has long worn its Canuck identity embroidered on its sleeve is closing the doors on its only Canadian garment plant and shifting production to cheaper pastures. It’s a move that seems to have provoked patriotic sensibilities and placed worker rights advocates on high alert, but why are industry reps blaming, of all places, Africa? Chalk it up to the unanticipated consequences of Third World charity work. Namely, that of former PM Jean Chretien, who back in 2002 championed a program to abolish duties on clothing from the poorest of the poor nations, a controversial move that revealed fault lines even among anti-globalization activists around the world.
Two decades into the era of free-trade-made-me-do-it factory flight, Roots’ announcement last month was perhaps no great surprise to insiders. After all, 30 to 40 per cent of Roots’ production is already stitched in places like China and Vietnam. But the eight-year-old Lawrence-and-Dufferin-area factory was the perfect photo op, helping to retain the company’s wholesome "made in Canada" image. Though the plant never unionized, it offered decent wages and working conditions, says Alex Dagg of the Union of Needletrade, Industrial and Textile Employees, things she fears will vanish once Roots shifts production to subcontractors, a sector riddled with sweatshop conditions even here in T.O..
Roots spokesperson Raymond Perkins denies the association with sweatshops and insists the company’s code of conduct ensures fair working conditions wherever it chooses to source its goods.
The fact is, says Perkins, that the "realities of today’s marketplace" helped make the Toronto plant unprofitable and convinced the famous sweats maker to get out of the manufacturing biz once and for all (even though Roots has been doing "very well" and is looking to cash in big as official outfitter to the Canadian, American and British teams at this year’s Olympic Games). But in addition to cheaper offers from subcontracting plants in T.O. and offshore, Roots and Canadian apparel industry reps say Chretien’s pet project has helped convince companies like Roots to board up local plants.
Back at the G8 Kananaskis Summit of 2002, Chretien announced the "Least Developed Countries (LDCs) Market Access Initiative." The project was geared to stimulate LDC economies through the then hot new trade-not-aid approach. In practical terms it would remove decades-old tariffs on clothing and textiles from 48 of the world’s poorest nations.
After all, trade barriers cost poor countries $100 billion a year, twice the amount they receive in aid, chimed in Oxfam Canada, which applauded Chretien’s move despite divisive heckling from within and widespread skepticism in the anti-globalization community. But Oxfam Canada spokesperson Mark Fried says the group still sticks by its stance. "LDCs have high-quality exports that they need to be able to earn hard cash for if they’re going to invest in their own development."
Other NGOs have their doubts. "An increase in trade doesn’t lead to greater respect for labour standards," says Ian Thomson of the Toronto-based Maquila Solidarity Network. If we’re going to give countries greater access to the Canadian market, says Thomson, we should try to ensure that goods are being made under humane working conditions. Take the agreement between the U.S. and Cambodia, for example. The more Cambodia (an LDC) complies with International Labour Organization standards, the more access to the U.S. market it gets. This arrangement, Thomson says, proves that "opening markets when linked to respect to human rights can have a positive effect on developing countries."
However, Oxfam’s Fried says that’s the kind of deal that makes him uneasy. "Should trade agreements be contingent on respect for labour standards? We believe they should, but we’re leery of giving the WTO power to impose trade sanctions on a country for lack of respect for labour rights." Not that the Cambodia deal does, admits Fried.
Ethical trade debates aside, the Canadian Apparel Federation’s Bob Kirke says that while we discuss the betterment of the Third World, companies in our own back yard keep folding thanks to the LDC initiative. "The Canadian government is forcing companies to drop their Canadian jobs or they won’t be competitive," says Kirke. "We’ve lost 10,000 jobs in the year since these measures were implemented."
But Rick Thomas of Industry Canada says it’s unfair to blame it all on the LDC initiative. "It may be that 10,000 jobs were lost, but I think it might be a bit of a stretch to say it’s directly because of the Least Developed Countries initiative, given all the challenges facing the industry at any one time."
Bottom line, says Thomas: the PM wanted to provide assistance to Africa and other LDCs, and by the feds’ measures it seems to be working. Canadian apparel imports from LDCs are up well over 100 per cent since the program started. And, adds Thomas, the everyday consumer should be paying less for those pants.
Of course, whether that’s a good thing or not depends on whether you’re shopping or working.