Outrage Down Under at Speedo 'Aussie cossie' factory moving to China

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The Independent Online
For millions of ocean- worshipping Australians, only one brand of swimwear will do: Speedo, which began life as a Sydney family business in 1928 and became as synonymous with the Australian summer as Bondi Beach.

For millions of ocean- worshipping Australians, only one brand of swimwear will do: Speedo, which began life as a Sydney family business in 1928 and became as synonymous with the Australian summer as Bondi Beach.

But now Bondi is the site of a backlash against a decision by Speedo to close its last Australian factory and transfer production of the "Aussie cossie" to China. The lifeguards who patrol the iconic stretch of sand are so incensed by the company's move that they are threatening to break a five-year sponsorship agreement.

Speedo, which was taken over by a British sports and leisurewear firm, Pentland, in 1991, has always had a close association with Australian beach culture and with the bronzed men and women of the lifesaving movement.

In the 1920s it made the lifesavers' uniform, then an unfeasibly impractical neck-to-knee woollen garment. In 1957 it unveiled its first nylon costume, developed in conjunction with Dawn Fraser, the former Australian Olympic swimmer. More recently, Speedo invented the "sharkskin" bodysuits that received so much attention at last year's Sydney Olympic Games.

The closure of the company's final factory at Windsor, north of Sydney, has seen 65 workers laid off, most of them women employed to sew the swimwear, many with more than 20 years of service.

The £100m sponsorship deal lets Speedo display its logo against the backdrop of Bondi Beach in exchange for supplying the lifeguards with clothing and equipment. But Paul Pearce, the Mayor of Waverley Council, which administers Bondi, believes the symbolism is no longer appropriate. "It seemed like a very natural arrangement, but it was predicated on the fact that we were dealing with a company with an Australian background," he said yesterday.

"Bondi is recognised worldwide as an Australian setting, but they are not using Australian workers to make up their goods. I find it very distasteful that they are using Bondi to promote their product, and then clearing off and producing offshore."

Generations of Australians grew up with Speedo and, despite its foreign ownership and international profile, they still regard it as a quintessentially Australian company. In common parlance, you "grab your Speedos and head down the beach". Talkback radio has been flooded with callers indignant about the firm's decision to abandon its roots.

While Waverley seeks legal advice on severing the sponsorship agreement, the lifeguards are considering instigating their own boycott. John Andrews, secretary of the Australian Professional Ocean Lifeguard Association, says many members are upset.

"We expect there to be a motion asking the association to support members who are asked to wear Speedo but who conscientiously object to the product," he said.

The company was originally called MacRae Knitting Mills, after the family that started it, but it changed its name to Speedo in the 1930s. The brand is now produced under licence around the world and sold in 120 countries. While most of the Australian production is to be moved to China, where labour costs are cheaper, some will be contracted out locally.

But that, according to textile union officials, is not cause to rejoice. The union has recently been in dispute with the management after visiting a garment factory in western Sydney where it said Speedo goods were being made by workers earning little more than £1 an hour. The management said it investigated the allegation and found it to be untrue.

The 65 sacked staff wrote to members of the Australian Olympic swimming team, recalling that they worked hard to get their bodysuits ready for the Games and asking for their support in the fight for their jobs. The only swimmer who replied ­ Michael Klim, who is sponsored by Speedo ­ expressed concern but declined to get involved.

David Tritton, industrial officer with the Textile, Clothing and Footwear Union. "This is the last gasp of the Aussie cossie. It's not Aussie any more."

Richard Stevens, group company secretary, said: "The decision was made by Speedo because the factory was not going to be able to be put back into profit. It's a consequence of globalisation."