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Big investors call on retailers to support factory safety pact in Bangladesh

Canadian retailers that buy cheap garments from the often dangerous factories of Bangladesh should endorse a binding factory fire and safety accord there, reads a statement released on June 17 by 54 institutional investors that manage over $44 billion in funds, including Vancouver credit union giant Vancity.

Pointing to the recent deaths of over 1,100 workers after an illegally-expanded building at the Rana Plaza near the Bangladeshi capital, Dhaka, collapsed, the statement calls on all companies sourcing product from that nation's troubled garment industry to commit to the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh.

It also calls for a commitment to "timely and effective action to ensure respect for the fundamental human rights of workers in the supply chains of the companies in which they invest, including health and safety, freedom of association and a living wage."

So far Loblaws, whose Joe Fresh line of garments was being produced at the Rana Plaza, is the only Canadian firm to endorse the accord, although the agreement has garnered support from over 50 firms around the world.

The Canadian pro-accord statement echoes a similar one issued in the United States recently by over 200 institutional investors.

Bob Jeffcott, who speaks for the Toronto-based Maquila Solidarity Network, said the statement shows that institutional investors recognize the accord is an effective way to tackle the fire and building safety hazards endemic to the Bangladeshi garment industry.

"It's significant that the accord is also supported by U.S. institutional investors with more than $2 trillion in assets," he said.

The accord has also been endorsed by the UN, the ILO, and the OECD, and more than 50 major companies have now signed it, he said.

In contrast, Jeffcott said that retailer and manufacturer associations in Canada and the U.S., as well as companies working with them like Gap and Walmart, are proposing "more of the same" voluntary standards and leaving factory inspections under the control of individual retailers and brands.

Peter Chapman, executive director of the Vancouver based SHARE (Shareholder Association for Research and Education), an organization that advises institutional investors on integrating social, environmental and governance issues (and one of the organizers of the investor statement), said that investors are now substantially interested in initiatives like the Bangladesh accord.

It's not desirable for western firms to withdraw from Bangladesh, he said. Instead, he argued, retailers should use their influence to promote improvements in safety conditions, which are "in everyone's interest."

"Apparel brands, retailers and manufacturers have an important role to play by adopting responsible sourcing practices in global supply chains," reads the statement, "including performing human rights due diligence, negotiating commercial terms with suppliers sufficient to provide for safe, healthy workplaces and a living wage, establishing robust oversight of their suppliers, and disclosing information on supply chain practices and outcomes."

Tom Sandborn covers labour and health policy beats for the Tyee. He welcomes your feedback and story tips at

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