Activists who have pressured American companies in recent years to stop importing goods from Burma because of poor labor conditions there got a boost from an unexpected source this week: A trade group representing U.S. footwear and clothing wholesalers announced it would lobby for a total ban on textiles, apparel and footwear from the Asian country.
"It's kind of a precedent," Kevin M. Burke, head of the Arlington-based American Apparel & Footwear Association, said in an interview. "We're usually on the other side on issues like this. But in this case, it's the right thing for our industry to be doing."
Human rights reports from the State Department have criticized the military government in Burma -- which calls the country Myanmar -- for using forced labor, including children, and a ban on labor unions. Burmese citizens who have protested such conditions have been tortured, raped or murdered, and family members kidnapped, the State Department said.
Burke said his group's decision was partially driven by the fact that many of his members have already pledged not to buy goods from Burma, leaving them facing competition from other firms that have ignored moral ambiguities in pursuit of market share. "But a couple cents here and there means nothing when you're talking about human lives," he said.
Prominent members of the trade group's social responsibility committee, which has highlighted ethical concerns in a global economy, include executives at Sara Lee Corp. and Jones Apparel Group Inc., both of which refuse to buy goods made in Burma. Others balking at Burmese goods include the TJX Cos., Nautica Enterprises Inc. and Burlington Coat Factory Warehouse Corp.
Burmese imports to the United States rose from $163 million in 1998 to $471 million in 2000 but fell to $356 million by 2002, after some companies stopped buying there, according to the foreign trade statistics compiled by the Commerce Department.
The trade group's announcement was applauded by labor and political activists but criticized by a U.S. Chamber of Commerce official who called it potentially harmful to Burmese workers.
Jeremy Woodrum, director of the Washington office of the Free Burma Coalition, said he was "extremely happy" to learn of the industry group's decision, which he called "a surprise."
Phil Fishman, assistant director of international affairs for the AFL-CIO, said the trade group's backing for a ban was "quite unique" among industry groups.
Officials at Burma's embassy in Washington did not respond to calls for comment but have said that any U.S. efforts to cut imports would hurt workers.
Willard Workman, senior vice president for international affairs at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, criticized the Burmese government but said Burmese workers could be most affected by a ban. "At the end of the day, who gets hurt? The workers," he said.
Trade embargoes have seldom been effective in changing the behavior of governments, Workman added, citing Iraq and Cuba.