Aussie clothing company Rip Curl apologizes for clothes made in North Korea

North Korean employees work at the assembly line of the factory of South Korean company at the Kaesong industrial complex on December 19, 2013 in Kaesong, North Korea. (File photo). Park Jin-Hee/Getty Images)

Rip Curl, a popular Australian surf and ski wear company whose clothing is sold in Canada, is doing damage control after allegations some of its “Made in China” products were actually produced in a North Korean sweatshop.

Rip Curl apologized over the weekend after Australia’s Fairfax Media reports some 4,000 units of Rip Curl ski wear slipped through the cracks and was shipped to its retail customers.

“We are very sorry that Rip Curl has breached the trust our customers put in us to make sure that the products they wear cause them no moral concern. That’s our responsibility to you and we have let you down on this one,” the company said in a Facebook posting.

“This sort of screw up is our responsibility to prevent and we are doing everything in our power to make sure it does not happen again.”

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More than 50 retailers across Canada carry Rip Curl garments, including the Rip Curl store at Metrotown Metropolis in Burnaby, B.C.

Manager Kale Whitehead said he was unaware of the report about some clothing being manufactured in North Korea. He said the store carried some products from the 2015 Mountain-wear line but didn’t know whether any of the products in question were available at that Rip Curl outlet.

READ MORE: North Korea orders military takeover of inter-Korean factories

Global News reached out to Rip Curl’s North American headquarters, in Costa Mesa, California, to discuss whether any of the garments in question made their way to North American retailers. The office declined to comment.

Rip Curl says it knew about the claim several months ago and “took immediate steps to investigate and rectify the situation” including unnamed action against its China-based contractor.

But Oxfam Australia says their company has “no excuse” for alleged human rights abuses associated with the manufacturing of its products.

“Australians would be shocked to hear that an iconic Australian brand with roots on the surf coast of Victoria can’t confidently track clothing produced within its own supply chain,” Oxfam Australia’s CEO Helen Szoke told Fairfax Media.

“Rip Curl needs to show the Australian public it’s serious about preventing this from happening again through a dramatic overhaul of its checks and balances. It should start by publishing its policies and a list of the factories where its products are made,” she said.

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According to the report by Fairfax Media, Australian taveller Nik Halik took the photos while visiting the Taedonggang Clothing factory near as a part of a tour last August.

But Anjaly Thomas, an avid traveller and writer, also posted photos from the factory on her blog in October 2014 — nearly a year earlier than Rip Curl said it first learned of garments being manufactured at the North Korean factory.

“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,” she wrote. “[North Korea] has what is called the ‘compulsory’ work routine, 6 days a week and ‘forced, voluntary work for the supposed day off.'”

READ MORE: South Korea’s leader warns of North Korea collapse

Koryo Tours, a Beijing-based company that takes foreign tourists on excursions in the tightly-controlled nation, includes visits to the Taedonggang Clothing Factory on its itineraries.

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Toronto-based representative Christopher Graper told Global News the factories Koryo visits, including Taedonggong, aren’t necessarily sweatshops.

“I’m not aware any human rights advocates that are worried about forced labour in garment factories,” Graper said.”That’s something that people would be talking about [in regard to] the prison system… but when you’re talking about stuff that would be open to tourists this is much more above the board.”

Graper explained tours of such factories are organized by the government and factory owners, and visits sometimes coincide with business delegations, much like a media tour.

“You don’t go anywhere they don’t want you to see,” he says. “If they didn’t feel the factory was in a good enough shape to show people, they wouldn’t do it.”

He acknowledged he hadn’t toured that particular factory, but he has visited similar sites while on tours in North Korea and those sites are what would be considered “model factories” in the country and the labour situation would be similar to what’s found in China — but at a cheaper rate.

The North Korean regime, according to Human Rights Watch, benefits from forced labour and says “it’s no exaggeration to say it dominates the lives of ordinary citizens on a daily basis.”

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In report published last October, Human Rights Watch noted the country was one of only a handful of countries worldwide that is not a member of the International Labour Organization and has no obligation to comply with international labour standards.

Rip Curl isn’t the first brand to face heat over garments being manufactured in North Korea.

In 2013, American brand Land’s End said it had not authorized the production of dress shirts at North Korea’s Songong Textile Factory. The shirts were tagged as being made in China.

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