mums a little defensive about sweatshops

Don’t try getting answers from Please Mum. If you’re wondering, like I was, why the children’s apparel store stopped manufacturing…

Don’t try getting answers from Please Mum.

If you’re wondering, like I was, why the children’s apparel store stopped manufacturing its clothes in Canada and started making them in China, well, too bad. The company isn’t talking.

Please Mum is probably a little media shy after it was revealed in 1997 that this darling of a Canadian success story owed its fortune to home-based sweatshops.

Asian immigrants who spoke little English and had few job prospects were working long hours for less than minimum wage and with no overtime pay. They sewed Please Mum’s pre-cut garments in their own homes — where the company incurred no overhead costs and where the cost of supplies often, if not always, came out of the workers’ own pockets.

They sometimes show up at the Please Mum factory warehouse with a load of finished work only to be instructed to do it over again.

“It was hard work,” Iqbal Badwal told the Vancouver Sun from her Surrey home. “I’d work more than eight hours. Sometimes I had to work on the weekend too, when you had to finish an order. If you say ‘No,’ they stop giving you work.”

That was 10 years ago.

Today, Please Mum needn’t worry about media reports about its home-based sweatshops because all of its factories are far, far away, in China.

I tried for weeks to talk to the company about this.

“I can give you a call next week to follow up with your questions…,” Katherine Koyko, marketing manager for Please Mum, told me in an e-mail.

But Koyko and the company brushed me off. The company also refused me an interview with the founder and CEO, Kathryn Adrian.

I sent several more e-mails, left phone messages, but nothing.

The manager of Please Mum here on Main Street in Whitehorse wasn’t much help either.

“That’s very bad publicity for the store,” she said when I told her I intended to write about how Please Mum had moved its manufacturing to China from Canada.

I didn’t know when I started researching Please Mum if its move to China was “very bad publicity” or not.

Canadian companies like Roots employ factories in China in order to stay competitive, but they monitor the conditions in those factories and report back to their customers via the Roots website.

Roots is extremely apologetic about its move away from Canada, but confesses it can’t survive without China’s low wages. I think customers appreciate the honesty.

In this day and age, any lack of information about factory conditions, means there is nothing to brag about.

What I did know about Please Mum was that for years I had been encouraged to shop there because all of its clothes were made in Canada. All the Please Mum hand-me-downs in my children’s closets say, “Made in Canada.”

But when I started strolling through the store myself a few years ago, I discovered a major change — everything said, “Made in China.”

What really irks me about it is that the visible tag says, “Please Mum – Vancouver – Canada.”

This blatant attempt to trick shoppers into thinking Please Mum garments are still being made in Canada is unforgivable. I was duped a few times.

And after all of the stonewalling and secrecy regarding its labour practices, I discovered that the founder of Please Mum is celebrated in Vancouver as a pillar of her community, an example for women, a philanthropist.

Kathryn Adrian’s rags-to-riches story of how she built an empire from the dark recesses of her basement in Kitsilano has been told over and over again. It is the traditional parable of how through hard work, anyone can make it.

Please Mum, registered under Elia Fashions Ltd., opened its first store in Burnaby, a suburb of Vancouver, in 1986.

Now it has approximately 90 stores, from BC to Newfoundland, and has plans to expand to 200 by 2010.

The store in Whitehorse is also rumoured for expansion down the street to where Coast Mountain currently operates.

It is probably no coincidence that since manufacturing in China, Please Mum has enjoyed unprecedented success.

“Please Mum considers the past few years the most productive in the history of our company,” says the company’s website.

This should allow it to continue its charitable work — it has given 500,000 to World Vision and supports a variety of other organizations, including Children’s Hospital, Big Sisters, YWCA Inner Circle, as well as earthquake and other disaster relief efforts.

And it will keep Adrian at the top of her class.

Chatelaine magazine ranked her ninth among its list of Top 100 women entrepreneurs in 2000; also ranked her ninth among its 100; she received the YWCA’s Woman of Distinction; she was named Canadian Woman Entrepreneur of the Year, and she is president of the Forum for Women Entrepreneurs.

I will quit my rant and leave you with a few ironic words from Please Mum.

The company’s “manifesto” includes a quote from Lucy Maude Montgomery’s literary character Anne of Green Gables.

“It (the world) wouldn’t be half so interesting if we knew all about everything, would it?” it says.

(Do you think Anne is referring to the conditions in Please Mum factories?)

Juliann Fraser is a writer living in Whitehorse.