An investigation by a large media company revealed over the weekend that the Australian surf label Rip Curl has been busted for manufacturing jackets in North Korea. Items from the label's 2015 mountainwear range were marked with false "Made in China" labels and shipped to a clothing store.
The issue, of course, is that North Korea is far from a workers' paradise. Factory employees face long hours at minimal or no pay. If they don't obey orders or refuse to work, they can be sent to prison camps. Then on the other end of the supply chain, a women's Rip Curl ski jacket retails at around $400 [$289 USD].
In light of this recent discovery Rip Curl responded with this apology on Facebook, using the term "screw up" twice.
To find out how this kind of thing happened, and how common it is, we spoke to Phil Robertson, the deputy director of the Asian division of Human Rights Watch. He overseas the organization's work in North Korea.
VICE: Hi Phil, how is it possible to "accidentally" outsource labor?
Phil Robertson: It's possible because companies like Rip Curl don't find their own manufacturers. They simply send garment specifications and price demands to a sourcing agent, who knows hundreds of factories all over Asia. Their business is based on delivering orders to factories for quick and cheap production, and ensuring the final product meets the brand's requirements.
So Rip Curl's agent would have outsourced stuff to North Korea?
Well in this case an agent sent Rip Curl's order to a factory in China, and that factory sub-contracted some of the order to the factory in North Korea. Unless Rip Curl says something, the sourcing agent doesn't really have an interest in labor rights or conditions under which a garment is made, so it's entirely possible they didn't check. If the garments were produced with a fraudulent "Made in China" label, how would they know?
Given these factors, is Rip Curl to blame?
International rights standards reflected in the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights require that companies "avoid causing or contributing to adverse human rights impacts through their own activities." What this means is that Rip Curl is on the hook for whatever rights abuses occur in their supply chain, whether they directly caused them or not.
Quite clearly, Rip Curl did not have the systems in place to prevent the outsourcing of their products to one of the most rights repressing countries in the world, and that's negligence of a significant magnitude. They didn't just "screw up" as they wrote in the apology on their Facebook page, Rip Curl fundamentally failed in their supply chain management.
What kinds of conditions do North Korean clothing factory workers face?
North Korea's workers are not free to choose their employment, and failure to report to work can result in arrest, incarceration, and can end in being sent to a forced labor camp. Workers would not be permitted to defy management orders to work as long or as hard as needed to complete a particular order. And despite North Korea technically being a communist state, workers are not permitted to form their own unions, and have no right to express their views or collectively bargain for better wages or conditions.
How do these conditions compare to those in countries such as Bangladesh, China, or India?
In those countries, workers can leave their employer if they wish and can seek another job. In India and Bangladesh, they can establish or join a union of their own choosing. And they are not facing complete deprivation of their rights to express their views, associate with other workers, or peacefully assembly in public to demand their rights.
Ideally, how can clothing companies avoid "screw ups" like this again?
Companies need to adopt codes of conduct that comply with international human rights standards and key International Labor Organization conventions, and accept responsibility for what happens in their supply chains. They can also hire their own auditors and inspectors (and not rely on third-party agents) to ensure their workers' rights are respected.
How practical is it for companies to make their supply chains completely transparent?
A number of companies, such as H&M, have made their entire supply chain public and companies like Rip Curl should do the same. Only when the consumers are able to look over a company's shoulder and see where products are made will it be possible to really talk about truly responsible sourcing.
You seem pretty riled about it this. What, to you, is the most damning aspect?
This "catch me if you can" attitude of Rip Curl is particularly damning. If they were serious about accountability then they should have made it public when they first found out, rather than trying to keep it quiet until Fairfax Media broke the story. The kind of apology that Rip Curl put up on their website is run of the mill, and inspires no confidence that they have learned any sort of lesson, much less committed themselves to more rights responsible production of their products in the future.
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