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Pressure grows on Canadian retailers to commit to factory safety

"We cannot allow this year to pass without more Canadian retailers making a legally-binding commitment to worker safety in Bangladesh."

To ensure that happens, Bob Jeffcott's Toronto-based anti-sweatshop group, the Maquila Solidarity Network, and 24 other civil society groups have challenged Canada's top garment retailers to follow the example of Loblaws and join the international Bangladesh Factory Fire and Safety Accord.

The accord is a legally binding agreement already endorsed by more than 125 mainly European firms. Loblaws is the only Canadian retailer so far to sign it. Now, civil society groups are calling on Canadian Tire, The Bay, Walmart Canada, Sears Canada, Giant Tiger and Y.M. Inc. to endorse it as well.

World attention was focused on factory safety in Bangladesh after the Rana Plaza disaster on April 24. The illegally-expanded factory complex collapsed and burned, killing more than 1,100 workers and creating a wave of public outrage against the dangerous conditions often endured by Bangladeshi garment workers, currently the world's lowest paid.

The letter is the latest in a series of public events designed to pressure Canadian retailers to join the accord. In June, 54 institutional investors who manage $44 billion in funds called on retailers to do so, and last month Bangladeshi worker advocate Kalpona Akter led a boisterous demonstration of delegates from a BC Federation of Labour convention at the downtown Vancouver Bay store, demanding that the firm join the accord.

Akter said before the rally that The Bay's preferred alternative to the accord, the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety, a voluntary, industry-sponsored agreement with 26 large company members, including the Canadian firms targeted by the recent public letter, had no worker involvement and no binding consequences for firms that failed to live up to safety commitments.

Calling the alliance "eyewash," Akter said that if Canadian firms had signed the accord in 2011, when it was first proposed, it could have saved the lives of many workers who died at the Rana Plaza.

The Tyee contacted the Canadian retailers targeted by the public letter for their comments. Only Walmart Canada responded.

"Walmart is working every day to improve worker safety in Bangladesh," company spokesman Alex Robertson said in a Dec. 18 email. "In fact, we did not have sourcing in the Rana Plaza factory specifically because it did not meet our safety standards. While there are many challenges ahead, we are committed to being part of the solution. In light of recent factory tragedies, this work is more important now than ever."

Tom Sandborn covers labour and health policy beats for The Tyee. He welcomes your feedback and story tips at tos65@telus.net.


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