When the illegally expanded factory building at the Rana Plaza in Savar, Bangladesh collapsed on April 24, killing, as of Wednesday, more than 400 workers who made 21 cents an hour, the tragedy created a public relations crisis for at least one Canadian retailer that sources some of its bargain clothing in the impoverished Asian nation.
While some knowledgeable observers say the final death toll of those who were labouring at five factories stuffed into the building's precarious eight stories could top 1,000, one Canadian company, Loblaw Inc., has committed to pay compensation to victims.
Non-government organizations that advocate against sweatshop conditions and for worker rights say that that firm and others in Canada can and should do much more.
While only Loblaw's Joe Fresh line has so far admitted to being a Canadian retailer sourcing garments from the Rana Plaza, other firms that have been named as customers of Ether Tex Ltd., one of the Rana Plaza factories, include Walmart, Fairweather Ltd. and Atlantic Sportswear.
No one from Walmart Canada, Fairweather or Atlantic Sportswear responded to requests for comment as this story was prepared, but on the Walmart website a statement on ethical sourcing of products says that: "As part of our Ethical Sourcing program, audits are conducted by third-party firms to verify that suppliers and their factories are complying with our rigorous supplier standards. We engage with suppliers and their factories to assist them in addressing any issues detected through the audit and to guide them in implementing processes to prevent violations before they happen." And a woman who answered the phone at Atlantic Sportswear but would not give her name told The Tyee that "We're not responsible. We have no comment for the media."
Loblaw, facing public outrage and calls for a consumer boycott, is going into its annual general meeting today in Toronto with the sourcing scandal very much at the top of mind of company executives. On Monday, the company announced that it would be paying compensation to Bangladeshi factory victims and is believed to have participated in an emergency meeting convened by the Retail Council of Canada to discuss the crisis. (The Council, which describes itself as "the voice of the Canadian retail industry," was founded in 1963, and says on its web page that it represents "45,000 storefronts" across the country.)
Retailers need to 'take effective steps'
A media spokeswoman for Loblaw, Julija Hunter, told the Globe and Mail on Sunday that "in the context of Joe Fresh manufacturing, the amount of production from the building was small. But I want to be clear that my confirmation of this does not in any way diminish that we feel that this is a tragedy."
However, at least one NGO disputed that claim. According to the Globe, "Washington-based Workers Rights Consortium said on Sunday that import data suggests Loblaw sourced a 'substantial' volume of Joe Fresh garments in the collapsed building in Bangladesh. The group supplied data that shows Loblaw imported nearly 18,000 kilograms of clothing from the factory in seven separate shipments this year alone, or roughly the weight of 28,000 T-shirts or 22,000 pairs of jeans."
Meanwhile, a Canadian NGO that advocates for the rights of sweatshop workers, the Maquila Solidarity Network (MSN), has issued a call for Loblaw and other Canadian firms to take effective steps to avoid another garment industry disaster in Bangladesh, where between 2005 and 2012, over 700 workers died in factory fires and other incidents including 112 deaths in the Tazreen fire five months ago. The Tazreen fire took place in a factory where, according to The New York Times, workers were producing garments for Walmart and other retailers.
Social justice advocates in Canada and abroad such as Toronto's MSN would like to see Canadians support the calls from the IdustriaAll Global Union for pressure on the Bangladeshi government to reform labour and worker safety laws, and they want Canadian firms that source garments in Bangladesh to join with two international firms (PVH, owners of Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger, and the German based retailer Tchibo), IndustriAll, the International Textile, Garment and Leather Workers' Federation (ITGLWF), the Clean Clothes Campaign (CCC), the Worker Rights Consortium (WRC), the International Labor Rights Forum (ILRF), MSN and seven Bangladeshi unions and NGOs in endorsing a comprehensive joint fire and building safety program for the country.
Such a program would promote independent and transparent inspections, an informed and active role for workers and trade unions, health and safety training for workers and management personnel, effective health and safety committees, and the right of workers to file complaints and to refuse unsafe work. The MSN is encouraging Canadians to sign a petition sponsored by the Clean Clothes Campaign to support these demands.
"So far, what we've heard from Loblaw about offering compensation to victims is a useful first step," Bob Jeffcott of MSN told The Tyee on Tuesday, "but there are other essential issues they'll have to deal with if they want to make serious progress. Prevention and transparency are important, and genuine worker involvement. The firms need to work collaboratively with local unions and international NGOs and develop stronger interventions. It is clear by now that factory audits alone will not do the job."
Read more: Rights + Justice, Labour + Industry
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