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Aussie surf brands under fire over slave labour claims

Aimee Pearce

Rip Curl, has been accused of using slave labour in North Korea to produce its clothing and now more iconic Aussie surf brands are facing questions about their questionable supply chains. In the past, labels like Rip Curl, Billabong and Quicksilver have refused to publish a list of the factories they use for production. And where there's no transparency, there are bound to be questions asked and sure enough, it was only a matter of time before someone is exposed.

While naming and shaming is never fun, it's frustrating that is has to come to this in order for things to improve. But you can't hide behind a lack of transparency forever. Conscious consumers won't allow it. And I love that this story came out, thank to an Aussie adventurer covertly photographing workers and garments in the Pyongyang factory. As conscious, ethical travellers we have a responsibility and a mandate to travel with our eyes wide open and be on the lookout for situations like this. Because exposure can result in change! And we should DEMAND it! Because an apology, or a "we didn't know that China was outsourcing to North Korea" is actually not good enough. Companies MUST take responsibility for their supply chains and make this information available transparently.

Read the story in full here:

High price of cheap surfwear: What’s North Korea making now?

 Exposed - outsourcing production in a country known for it's human rights violations is not a good look. Photo via Nik Halik

Exposed - outsourcing production in a country known for it's human rights violations is not a good look. Photo via Nik Halik

Emma Reynolds via news.com.au

RIP Curl has been exposed for using North Korean slave labour to make its clothing, and it seems it’s not the only surf brand whose supply chain remains under wraps.

After Fairfax revealed this weekend that a factory near the repressive nation’s capital had been making clothes for the company, human rights groups said they had questions over similar Aussie favourites including Quiksilver and Billabong.

While high-profile fast fashion brands including Target and Kmart have come under the spotlight for how they source their garments, these popular labels have escaped scrutiny.

None of the three biggest surf giants in Australia have published a list of the factories they use. While Billabong complies with a global standard on working conditions, that standard has been called “weak” by Oxfam.

Surfers reacted with anger this weekend after Fairfax revealed details about a factory near Pyongyang that has been making winter clothing for surf giant Rip Curl.

“This is why these large corporate brands are falling,” wrote Peter Mommsen on the company’s Facebook page. “They have lost their soul in greed.”

“Do you just draw up some designs and send them off to ‘Asia’ and hope for the best?” added customer Shane Fang. “You need to keep an eye on your supply chain. Why not take a stance and make this information public on the Rip Curl website? Set a trend. Be cool, not cheap.”

Curly-Bones Jackson added: “I am never buying Rip Curl again, I used to like this ‘Australian’ brand.”

‘TO THE WORLD THEY DO NOT EXIST’

The story emerged after Australian businessman and adventurer Nik Hali covertly photographed workers and the garments’ ‘made in China’ labels during a tour last July.

Rip Curl responded to the Fairfaxstory by apologising for the “screw up” and saying it didn’t know its products were being outsourced from China to North Korea until recently.

“We were made aware of this some months ago and took immediate steps to investigate and rectify the situation,” the company wrote in a Facebook statement. “All of our suppliers know that our terms of trade prevent them diverting production to non-certified factories and we do undertake factory inspections and audits to try to prevent this happening. In this case we took immediate action to discipline the supplier for his breach and we are increasing our inspections and audits.

“Regardless of this, two styles totalling 4000 units of Rip Curl ski wear did slip through and was shipped to customers.”

Rip Curl clothing has been manufactured at the North Korean factory since at least July 2014, when blogger Anjaly Thomas wrote about a tour to the site.

“We were taken to Pyongsong Taedonggang clothing Factory which was mass producing winter clothes for a very popular brand — RIP CURL,” she wrote on her blog Travel with Anjaly.

“The three floors of a large factory building was working full swing, with women in uniforms, bent over the machines under slow rotating fans, reducing yards of material into jackets and pants, expertly [sewing], stitching together what would later sell for quite a sum in the western market.

“There is nothing wrong with outsourcing work to a poorer country — but it is rather disturbing when you know the real story of the workers in the factory.

“The DPRK [Democratic People’s Republic of Korea] has what is called the ‘compulsory’ work routine, six days a week and ‘forced, voluntary work for the supposed day off’.

“The workers are paid very little and often as food coupons to be en-cashed at government run stores for rice and corn and very little cash comes to them. And yet to the world they do not exist.”

‘BEHIND THE PACK’

Oxfam’s manager of labour rights advocacy Joy Kyriasou told news.com.au: “Quiksilver, Billabong and Rip Curl have never published the names and locations of their factories in a list.

“It’s the first step in knowing the supply chain and being willing for it to be independently looked at to ensure safety and standards are compliant.

“If you’re outsourcing then subcontracting is a common practice. There’s no excuse for not checking and having independently checked where clothes are being made and what the conditions are.”

She said 90 per cent of clothes in Australia come from Asia, mostly developing countries. Very young women often work 12-hour days, six days a week in garment factories, have no rights to sick leave or holiday and are paid poverty wages.

Popular fashion retailers including Forever New, Cotton On, Coles and the Specialty Fashion Group — whose brands include Katies, Millers, Autograph, City Chic and Crossroads — have all made commitments to greater transparency and moved towards publishing supplier details online.

The surf brands are “behind the pack,” said Ms Kyriasou.

Aussie companies came under heightened pressure to be transparent about their textile products after the Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh in 2013, which killed more than 1100 workers and injured 2500. Workers in Bangladesh were being paid the equivalent of $20 a week — a fifth of what the charity considers a minimum living wage for the nation.

Ms Kyriasou said the problem with secretive North Korea, where employment is compulsory, is that it was impossible to know how workers were really treated. Finding out what factory conditions are like is hard enough in countries that allow non-profit organisations in, and the DPRK is notorious for its human rights abuses.

“Are the wages acceptable?” she asked. “Are the factories safe? It’s extraordinarily difficult to have these assurances in place. We‘ve heard of outsourcing to new places and new labelling we’ve heard of before, but not really about North Korea much at all.”

Quiksilver told news.com.au: “For well over a decade, Quiksilver has maintained policies to ensure that its products are produced in accordance with the highest ethical and legal standards.

“Under the QUEST (Quiksilver Ethical Standards of Trade) program, all vendors within Quiksilver’s supply chain are required to comply with the Supplier Workplace Code of Conduct, which was created in line with recognised international standards, conventions and laws.”

A spokesman from Billabong told news.com.au: “Billabong does use independent third party providers — Bureau Veritas — to conduct global reviews of our suppliers There have been 60 reviews since last August and they’re conducted continuously for suppliers and their sub-contractors.

“Bureau Veritas are one of the largest compliance auditors in the world.

“To the best of my knowledge, Oxfam have never contacted us to ask what we are doing in this space. Other NGOs have and we’ve spoken openly about our policies and also taken on their feedback about additional steps we could take — that’s not avoiding scrutiny.

“Oxfam are also welcome to contact us at anytime.”