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Olympic Torch Bearer Uniforms Made In Burma Sweatshops

by Jim Lobe

One of the world's worst violators of human rights
(IPS) WASHINGTON -- The brutal military regime in Burma, which is not one of the countries taking part in the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, nonetheless cast a shadow over the opening ceremonies.

The Salt Lake City Olympic Committee, or SLOC, is being pressed by human rights and labor groups to explain how parts of the uniform worn by more than 10,000 runners who helped carry the Olympic torch to the Winter Games were manufactured by workers in Burma.

The country's labor record is so bad that it became the first nation in history to be suspended by the International Labor Organization (ILO).

"No responsible organization or body should make use of products originating in Burma," wrote Guy Ryder, the head of the Brussels-based International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU) in a letter to Jacques Rogge, the president of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) last week.

"This is particularly true for an organization that has a goal to 'contribute to building a peaceful and better world,'" he noted, calling on the IOC to investigate and apologize for the order. "The IOC should immediately act to disassociate itself from those trading with tyranny in Burma and reaffirm the historic values of the Olympic Games."

That was all the message received by the IOC from U.S. activist groups, including the Free Burma Coalition (FBC), the American Anti- Slavery Group (AASG), and Educating for Justice, an anti-sweatshop group.

"We hope this was simply a mistake by the Olympics," said AASG's David Moore from the group's Boston headquarters. "But now, the IOC should apologize for this mistake and promise to never support -- indirectly or directly -- the Burmese regime."

Burma, which was renamed Myanmar by the military junta that seized power in 1988, has long been considered one of the world's worst violators of human rights.

It is also one of the world's few regimes which uses a system of forced labor, denounced by the ILO in 1998 as "a saga of untold misery and suffering."

In an unprecedented action in its 82-year history, the ILO last year effectively suspended Burma's participation in the organization and appealed for all its government, business, and labor members to reassess any ties they had to the country.

Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace laureate whose party swept the 1990 elections that were ignored by Rangoon, has also appealed for foreign businesses to avoid doing business in Burma as a way of putting pressure on the regime to recognize the election results and restore civilian rule.

The European Union has imposed trade sanctions against Burma, while President Bill Clinton imposed a ban on all new investments by U.S. companies in the country in 1997.

In addition, the FBC and allied groups have successfully pressed some two dozen state legislatures and city councils to enact laws and ordinances that make it more difficult for companies that do business in Burma to win public contracts.

As a result, a number of Fortune 500 companies have withdrawn their investments in Burma or, in the case of about a dozen name-brand clothing retailers, such as Levi Strauss and Liz Claiborne, barred their suppliers from using Burmese factories. Investigations have shown that senior Burmese army officers often have financial interests in the textile factories.

Not aware that Myanmar was another name for Burma
Activists here first became aware of the uniform's origin when an escaped Sudanese slave living in Massachusetts, Francis Bok, was chosen as one of the more than 11,500 official torchbearers who carried the Olympic torch on its U.S. tour.

Like Burma, Sudan is one of the tiny handful of countries where forced labor or slavery is practiced.

He and his friends noticed that the uniform's pants and shell top bore "Made in Myanmar" labels.

In the last few days, more than a thousand activists have e-mailed complaints to the IOC.

The IOC, however, has insisted that it bears no responsibility for the order and that all arrangements for the torch relay to Salt Lake City had been made by the local organizing committee, the SLOC.

Most of them received email replies signed in the name of the SLOC's Media relations Committee, which indicated that it thought Burma and Myanmar were two different countries.

"The torch relay clothes were NOT made in Burma. They were manufactured in Myanmar," according to the email sent by the Committee to the protesters last week. "In fact they were made in the exact same factory that produces clothes for GAP, North Face and other major clothing labels."

When the activists responded by pointing out to the SLOC that Myanmar was the name given Burma by the SLORC, the media relations committee apologized for the "misinformation" and confirmed that Marker LTD, a Salt Lake City retailer that is the SLOC's exclusive sportswear licensee for the Games, had indeed ordered the uniforms from a Burmese factory.

"The United States has not imposed restrictions on importing from Burma," the Committee said in a subsequent press statement, "and the uniforms were imported in compliance with all applicable laws."

But activists were not satisfied with the explanation.

"They still don't get it," sighed the director of the FBC's Washington office, Jeremy Woodrum. "We understand the IOC's desire to avoid political issues, but forced labor and slavery are so universally reviled that the Olympics is undermining the very values it aims to promote."

He also noted that, contrary to the Media Relations Committee's first email response, both the GAP and North Face do not buy products manufactured in Burma.

Indeed, said Jamie Edgerton, a GAP spokesman, "We've never sourced in Burma. I'm not sure where they got that information from."

As a result of the controversy, it now appears that Marker, too, intends to boycott Burmese factories. A senior company official said future imports from there were unlikely.

But the ICFTU is not likely to rest with that. In his letter to Rogge, Ryder noted that three other companies besides Market LTD -- Lucent Technologies, Chevron Texaco, and Samsung -- were official sponsors of the Games.

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Albion Monitor February 11, 2002 (

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