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German-Owned Spiegel Group Bans Burma Buys

Downers Grove-based Spiegel, which owns Newport News and Eddie Bauer, joins a list of 28 companies that have made similar pledges in the past 20 months against association with the pariah nation, reviled for its use of forced labor.
Mail Order Giant is 28th Company to Refuse Business with Forced Labor Regime

WASHINGTON, D.C. – The Spiegel Group, a top U.S. mail-order retailer with nearly $4 billion in sales in 2000, has announced in a letter to the Free Burma Coalition it will not accept merchandise that is sourced from the Southeast Asian country of Burma. Spiegel, which owns Newport News and Eddie Bauer, joins a list of 28 companies that have made similar pledges in the past 20 months against association with the pariah nation, reviled for its use of forced labor. The Otto family of Germany, which controls the world's largest mail-order firm, Otto Versand, owns essentially all of Spiegel's voting stock.

“We applaud the contribution that Spiegel is making toward human rights in Burma,” says Free Burma Coalition (FBC) fellow Aung Din. “No company should support forced labor.”

Since June 2000, 28 companies, including Wal-Mart, Williams Sonoma, Crate and Barrel, and Kenneth Cole have pledged to not import and/or retail goods made in Burma. In January 2002 alone, three companies-- Value City/Filene’s Basement, operator of 110 department stores with over $2 billion in 2000 sales, an un-named company with $1.5 billion in 2000 sales, and Spiegel--have pledged not to import and/or retail goods from Burma. At the international level, Denmark-based IKEA refuses to sell goods from Burma and the Norwegian Olympic team rejected the wearing of the Triumph logo or products unless the company pulls out of Burma.

Many companies want to distance themselves from Burma due to the close relationship between the apparel industry and forced labor. According to the U.S. State Department Country Report on Human Rights released in February 2001, “Forced labor, including forced child labor, has contributed materially to the construction of industrial parks subsequently used to produce manufactured exports, including garments.” The International Labor Organization, an agency of the United Nations, has called the system of forced labor in Burma “a saga of untold misery and suffering, oppression and exploitation,” and for the first time in its 82 year history, authorized its member countries to impose sanctions on Burma. Business with Burma’s junta also helps it acquire the cash it needs for its nuclear technology capacity, a point made by The Washington Post in a January 6 editorial.

Despite a 1997 ban on new U.S. investment aimed at supporting Burma’s 1991 Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi and the struggle for democracy in the country, Burmese apparel imports to the United States have skyrocketed in recent years, increasing over 800% from 1995 through 2000. As a result, a coalition of 26 human rights, religious, and labor groups including the American Anti-Slavery Group, Women’s Division of the United Methodist Church, Maryknoll Fathers and Brothers, Lawyer’s Committee for Human Rights, Global Exchange, and the National Labor Committee have signed letters calling on companies to stop importing from Burma.

Spiegel cited human rights as its chief concern in the letter, stating that, “Like the members of your coalition, we are concerned with human rights abuses in Burma/Myanmar… We currently have a policy in place prohibiting any Spiegel Group company from doing direct or indirect business there [in Burma] because of the military and human rights concerns.”

“Companies haven’t take this strong a stance against human rights abuses since they stopped doing business with South Africa in the 1980s,” added Aung Din.
 
 

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