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Global News |24Oct2012 | staff

Exclusive: Rights Museum facing heat over foreign goods

The new museum rising over The Forks in Winnipeg is supposed to be a beacon for human rights.

But many, including Manitoba’s premier, are disappointed to find out from Global News Wednesday that Canada’s $351 million Museum for Human Rights is selling t-shirts made in countries that have poor records for human rights, and workers' rights.

The shirts, sporting the museum’s image and on sale at a store at the Forks, were not made in North America. One was produced in Vietnam where it is illegal for workers to join independent unions. Another was made in Honduras – a country Amnesty International has repeatedly warned, because human rights defenders are being threatened with death and attacked.

The Manitoba government contributed $40 million to the construction of the museum, which is due to open 2014. And Greg Selinger was taken aback when he learned where the shirts came from.

"They do need to set an example; they know that because otherwise it can come back at but a stark contrast on the symbol of human rights in terms of practices in terms of products that they sell," Selinger told Global News Wednesday.

We asked the museum spokesperson what steps were taken to ensure workers rights were respected.

“There are industry standards and third party organizations and as I said we can work to provide you with a little more detail about what the process is,” said Angela Cassie.

The process was a single paged letter from the t-shirt manufacturer, Gildan.

The Canadian company is a member of a number of organizations including the Fair Labor Association. But even the chair of the FLA monitoring committee says certification doesn't mean the company is a good one, saying “you’d hope it is.”

The museum said it did its “due diligence”. But it did not contact any industry organizations or groups that represent workers before ordering the shirts. FLA’s annual reports shows 93% of member company factories had health and safety code violations. Plus there were many violations in terms of wages, benefits and freedom of association.

Some of those issues were flagged in six FLA audits of Gildan’s Honduran operations between 2004 and 2009.

This month a worker rights consortium issued a report alleging union members are being threatened at the Star facility. Gildan says it has taken steps to address the concerns. The Worker Rights Consortium remains critical.

"The need to get it cheap is not a compelling moral excuse for sourcing clothing from irresponsible producers," says Scott Nova. "An organization dedicated to human rights ought to advance those rights in all of its operations.”

In a statement to Global News late Wednesday the museum said,

“The Canadian Museum for Human Rights has a commitment that we take very seriously to source products from companies with fair labour practices and principles. We are reviewing the new information recently released about Star, S.A. factory and have, in fact, not purchased anything from Gildan for over two years. At that time, the CMHR was satisfied that Gildan was providing safe, fair and legal working conditions according to the Fair Labor Association and World Responsible Accredited Production standards. We are now reviewing the Workers’ Rights Consortium’s report, working with our suppliers to learn more, and will take action if we learn that the merchandise provided by our suppliers does not respect and comply with our standards.”

T-Shirt manufacturer Gildan insists workers’ rights are respected.

“It’s anything but a sweatshop,” Peter Iliopoulos told Global News. “These are facilities with better standards than what we see in North America.”

Global News. A division of Shaw Media Inc., 2012.