I was shocked this week when driving south down Northbourne Avenue through Canberra's city centre. Stopped at traffic lights at the junction of London Circuit, I glanced casually to my left. Emblazoned across the windows of the Fletcher Jones store were the banners: CLOSING DOWN SALE.
Overseas readers may ask who or what is Fletcher Jones and why was Christine so shocked. Does this have any relevance to the wider manufacturing industry issues in developed countries?
I first learnt about Fletcher Jones from my mother, born in 1921. From her generation to mine and beyond to the mid 1990s, Fletcher Jones was an iconic, high profile, clothing manufacturer and retailer renowned for the quality of the material used and skill in manufacture of their suits, skirts, shirts, trousers, and their craftsman-like attention to achieving an exceptional cut and fit in their clothing. A Fletcher Jones skirt or suit was a symbol that you were upwardly mobile just as Armani or Versace products are internationally today. Fletcher Jones clothing was a joy to wear and a visual standout because of the beauty in design and quality in manufacture.
In business for approximately ninety-three years, Fletcher Jones, the man, had an innovative approach to business for his day and structured it so that all of his employees owned shares in his company. This meant that the owners and workers within the company had an intrinsic interest in their products. Their goods made a statement about the Fletcher Jones people. Fletcher Jones' reputation was a source of pride for everyone associated with the firm. Everyone benefitted, even the customer.
As William A Foster said and as Fletcher Jones, the man, knew 'Quality is never an accident; it is always the result of high intention, sincere effort, intelligent direction and skillful execution; it represents the wise choice of many alternatives.'
I first noted a change in Fletcher Jones products after the company was sold in 1998. The flair in design of women's clothing seemed to disappear while the diversity in design narrowed and the vast range of sizes, for which Fletcher Jones had once been famous, diminished. The business appeared to be 'playing it safe' by making ordinary products and in relying on reputation to make sales and on marketing.
From a middle-class shopper's perspective, this appeared to be a widespread clothing industry philosophy from the mid 1990s. Despite there being a proliferation of women's clothing brands in Australia, it was hard to find anything that was distinctive in design and of high quality. Quality in manufacture appeared to 'go down the gurgler' even in the new name Australian brands. Personally, I do not want to wear clothes that make me look like a cloned and mass produced 'product'. I do not want to spend money on inferior cloth and finish.
The closure of Fletcher Jones is part of a wider manufacturing and retail industry malaise in Australia that confronts many Australian producers and workers today and has had widespread effect on diverse businesses: clothing, wool and cotton production, books, cars, aluminium and other forms of manufacture, and so on. Consider the economic state of Greece, a country without a strong industry base in 2012. It is faced with demanding austerity measures in order to achieve an EU bailout so that the country can avoid bankruptcy. Is this the end point that Australians, irrespective of their type of employment, want to reach if we allow our industry to move offshore?
The change in company ownership and leadership to parties disinterested in their 'products' and focused on record profit each year seems to me to be at the heart of the workplace crisis. Avarice appears to have become their new virtue. While the ch-ching of profit may be music within corporations disinterested in the 'products' of their business, the shallowness in that warning tinkle should give them and us pause so that we have time to think about the implications to our future individual and national prosperity. Those 'products' extend beyond saleable items.
Previously inherent Australian workplace values such as 'a respectable and consistent profit', 'investment in research and development to stay ahead in the manufacture game', and 'a fair day's pay for a fair day's work' appear to have been rejected by those industries. Exploitation of developing countries' workers and unregulated lesser working conditions in the pursuit of record profit seems to be the core value of such businesses.
Of equal concern to me is the focus of government. With Paul Howes as a vocal exception, it appears that Labor government accepts the decline of our manufacturing industry and the removal of Australian jobs to offshore. What happens to our people, our economy, and our long term security when we become a nation dependent on imports and when unemployment has risen to record levels because employment opportunities have disappeared offshore because business were distracted by the glitter of record profit?
For me there is an inherent paradox in the values of government in this. How can any first world government advocate the raising and regulation of workers health and safety conditions and the concept of a minimum basic wage to enable workers to have a decent standard of living while accepting its businesses transferring to third world countries where such standards are non-existent and exploitation thrives? What does this say about our leaders? What does it say about the people who 'lead' such business? Isn't this contributing to a long term shift in economic power to third world countries and the demise of economic well-being in first world countries?
I agree with Tom Chappel who said, 'Never let the competition define you. Instead, you have to define yourself based on a point of view you care deeply about.'
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