Strewth! Another Aussie icon goes walkabout

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The Independent Online

Blundstones, the well-known Australian brand of work boot, are no longer to be made in Australia.

The elastic-sided boots have been worn by workers for decades and, more recently, by young urbanites who see them as fashionable. "Blunnies" have a good export market, and are favoured by some celebrities including, reportedly, the actress Brooke Shields and the model Cindy Crawford.

Yesterday, the company announced it was closing its factory in Hobart, Tasmania, where the boots have been made for 137 years. It plans to shift production to Thailand and India, where they can be made at a fraction of the cost. More than 300 jobs will be lost in Hobart, and 60 in New Zealand, where a factory in Auckland is being shut.

The news dismayed some Australians, who have seen several national "icons", including Vegemite yeast spread, XXXX beer and Driza-Bone rainwear, taken over by foreign companies. Even the national carrier, Qantas, with its "Flying Kangaroo" logo, is facing takeover by a consortium led by an American private-equity firm.

Blundstone has not been bought out by foreigners. But the product that uses the slogan "Australian for boot" will no longer be made in Australia. The company's chief executive, Steve Gunn, said it was struggling to compete in a market flooded by cheaper imports. The only solution was to move manufacturing to a place with lower labour costs. "It's extremely regrettable and unfortunate it has such an impact on our staff, but in terms of the company and the brand, it's a critical decision," he said. Staff in Hobart were informed about the move when they returned to work after Christmas. While they will be offered redundancy packages, they have no prospect of finding new jobs, since there is no other major boot-maker in the area.

The main construction workers' union warned that Australia's half-million building workers might boycott Blundstones if the company moved overseas. David Noonan, a senior official, said the matter would be put to a vote on building sites.

"The majority of Australia's 500,000 construction workers were proud to wear Blundstones, knowing they were supporting a great Australian company," he said. "All that would be put at risk if Blundstone takes the low-cost road to offshoring production."

The company was set up in Hobart in 1870 and makes about a million cow-leather boots a year. It is still owned by one of the original founding families, the Cuthbertsons.

Mr Gunn said it was not falling demand that had prompted the move, which will take place over the next nine months. The boots sell well in the US, Canada and Britain, as well as at home. But the company has been under pressure to diversify its products, with consumers wanting styles that are more labour-intensive.

Unions attacked the Australian government, saying its trade and low-tariff policies had opened the door for Chinese imports. The Industry minister, Ian Macfarlane, said Blundstone had received millions of dollars in support.