Alison Gowling/The Gauntlet

Finding felonious factories

Publication YearIssue Date 

Mr. Birt is an organizer with Calgary Public Interest Research Group. In March of 2002, students will be asked whether or not they support a refundable student levee funding CPIRG. Last year, a non-binding opinion question found a majority of students supported the idea of funding CPIRG.

     Wash dark colours separately. Machine wash warm. Tumble dry medium. CA 18345. But is it made in a sweatshop? Were the human rights of the workers who made my sweatshirt violated?

Anyone who inquires about the production of our clothing is probably frustrated. A letter to Nike or Gap may return stating that factory location and conditions are "proprietary information" or cheap labour is a "competitive advantage." Other companies may claim to be working with human rights groups to gradually improve working conditions.

While there may be some truth to claims of social responsibility, the fact is that human rights groups and corporations are unequal in their resources, making it difficult to verify claims of "improved working

However a little known five digit CA number sewn onto all clothing tags may just be the tool anti-sweatshop activists need to equalize their fight for ethical working conditions. Canadian law requires companies to provide information on clothing tags like the type of fabric, the country of manufacture, and the address of the company. Industry Canada provides an online reference database, strategis.ic.gc.ca/SSG/cp01120e.html, where you can use the CA number to look up the address of the company's corporate headquarters.

Requiring a company to provide information through labelling is not a radical idea. Ingredient listings in chocolate bars prevent with peanut allergies from having a reaction, and recycling symbols highlight environmental concerns. However there is no generally accepted or trusted way of highlighting ethical working conditions. Economists say consumers make decisions based on all information available, but since I care about how my clothing is made, how can I make a good decision if I don't have the information?

If the government were to require companies to link their clothing through the CA number to particular workplaces, anti-sweatshop advocates (like the Ethical Trading Action Group) would have greater information parity with corporations. Independent third-party auditors could then be hired to do random checks on any workplace, not just on the factories that a company has "approved for audit," preventing the really bad ones from being hidden. This small change to the Textile Labelling Act would require few resources, would spur the sweatshop debate to industry-wide action, and would signal the government's commitment to human rights in third world work places.

To learn more about this sweatshop information campaign check out www.maquilasolidarity.org. Feel like taking action? Write a letter to Industry Minister Brian Tobin, or even start a campaign with like-minded individuals by creating an action group with the support of the Calgary Public Interest Research Group.

CPIRG can be reached by e-mail at pirg-calgary@yahoogroups.ca, or by coming to our meetings on Wednesdays at 5 p.m. on the third floor of Social Sciences.

This article is the opinion of the author and does not necessarily represent the position of CPIRG.