Australian Clothes Brands Part of Sweatshop Conditions in Asian Factories

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By Vittorio Hernandez | January 6, 2014 10:13 AM EST

The huge blaze in October that killed seven workers and razed a Bangladeshi textile factory that made materials for known retail outlets found in Australia such a Kmart, Target, Big W and Just Jeans brought to fore not only the sweatshop conditions in these facilities.

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Sears Holdings Corp. (SHLD) said Tuesday it will close as many as 100 to 120 Kmart and Sears Full-line stores after holiday sales of consumer electronics and apparel declined in the U.S.

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As the local operators of the factories face charges, it also highlighted the role that Aussie clothing brands play in perpetuating the dangerous working conditions in Asian factories that produce clothes for the Australian and other western markets.

The October fire was the fifth in the last 18 months in Bangladesh, involving blazes and building collapses that had taken the lives of over 1,200 local workers, bringing the global rag trade to international attention.

However, what appears to be unfortunate here - besides the loss of lives and jobs, is the washing of hands of the operators of these companies and Australian retailers that benefitted from the cheap labour. Aussie firms which partly source their clothing items from Aswad Composite Mills - the one that burned in October - claimed they did not know the factory, its perils, and even insist they do not need to know due to lack of direct relationship but just a supplier-to-supplier deal. That was the stand of Big W and Target, while Kmart said it no longer sources materials or garments from Aswad.

The clothes that Aussies wear usually had actually passed several nations, beginning with the picking of cotton in countries like Uzbekistan which is notorious for the use of child labour during harvest, followed by weaving of the materials in Indian factories where underage girls work under illegal three-year contracts and garments stitching in Bangladesh.

The Aswad factory, which exported $200 million worth of clothes in 2013, was found by government inspectors to be dangerous to human life.

Due to the extremely low labour costs in these Asian factories which hire mostly uneducated or unskilled poor women, countries like Bangladesh that earns $22 billion from the textile trade yearly and whose economy would collapse if the sector would be boycotted, would remain a favourite hub for clothing manufacturing.

Aswad owners deny there were faults with the factory and are even insisting criminal charges filed by the Bangladeshi government are false and fabricated. Among the finding of government inspectors were non maintenance of fire extinguishers and other fire safety equipment, lack of regular maintenance of motors, electrical switches and wiring and improper ventilation of the edifice.

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(Photo: Reuters / John Gress)
Sears Holdings Corp. (SHLD) said Tuesday it will close as many as 100 to 120 Kmart and Sears Full-line stores after holiday sales of consumer electronics and apparel declined in the U.S.
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