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Blue-Collar City Takes Stand on Sweatshop Clothing.

ANS--A national agreement to limit sweatshop labor in the apparel industry has begun tearing at the seams, with labor and industry leaders split on several key issues.

But in Bangor, Maine, an alliance of activists and merchants, with the support of the city council, is taking a stand on the global issue of exploitation in the workplace.

Retailers such as Paul Cormier, owner of Cormier's Clothing, a men's clothing store in downtown Bangor, are putting pressure on their suppliers to change their sweatshop practices.

Cormier said that an American clothing manufacturer--which he would not name--recently moved some of its clothing manufacturing to Taiwan. Yet Cormier said that he had to pay the same price for the shirts regardless of the fact that they were being made for a fraction of the price overseas.

"I said, `Hey, who's taking a profit here?'" Cormier said. "I asked them to just ship what's made in the USA. If we paid those people a living wage our foreign aid to [those third world countries] would go down to nothing."

Cormier is a member of the Clean Clothes Campaign, a local activist group formally backed by the city. In June of last year, Bangor became one of the first municipalities in the country to take a stand against sweatshop production of clothing, in a nonbinding resolution passed by the city council.

Today, the campaign continues to grow as more retailers sign on, pledging to find out from their suppliers if the shoes and clothes that are made overseas are manufactured in humane conditions. There are now 500 consumers participating in the campaign, and 19 Bangor-area retailers that are developing "clean clothes" inventories, helping to educate the public about the global sweatshop economy, and communicating with suppliers about the desire for sweatshop-free products.

"We are taking the first steps in changing the buying practices at the retail level," said Bjorn Skorpen Claesen, coordinator of the Bangor Clean Clothes Campaign, which helps retailers and consumers sort out which clothing manufacturers have sweatshops overseas. "This is not a fringe issue, but one of common decency."

The impetus for the Clean Clothes Campaign in Bangor, a city with a large blue-collar contingent, has been the steady loss of Maine's apparel, textile and shoe industry jobs to overseas labor: A 55 percent decline in the last 17 years.

In Bangor, companies like Timberland Shoes have moved out--going from paying workers $8.30 an hour to $1.50 an hour in the Dominican Republic. The central Maine city has a population of about 35,000.

"The cheaper people work overseas, the cheaper we have to work here to keep our jobs," Claesen said.

But the campaign is not one of protectionism, Claesen stressed. "This is not a boycott campaign," he said. The goal is to change the practices of companies that hire adults and children in third world countries at slave wages, he said.

"We don't want to hurt the workers that make these brands in the sweatshops," Claeson said. "We don't want to take jobs away, but we want companies to pay them a living wage. We want to do this in a way that will raise conditions globally."

While Bangor's efforts to change a monolithic enterprise of overseas sweatshop production of shoes and apparel won't alone change the industry, it is a start, Claeson said. "We are reclaiming our community values for a progressive cause. We're developing a model for community action to protect jobs and wages and humanize sweatshop production," he said.

Details: Paul Comfier, 207-942-3273; Bjorn Skorpen Claeson, 207-947-4203.
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Publication:Nation's Cities Weekly
Article Type:Brief Article
Date:Nov 30, 1998
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