With the butcher's bill for the garment industry's most lethal accident now standing at 1,127 workers killed in the factory collapse at the Rana Plaza factories outside Dhaka, Bangladesh on April 24, only one Canadian firm has endorsed a legally binding worker safety agreement crafted by unions and worker rights NGOs.
Loblaws, the Canadian retailer behind the Joe Fresh brand, which had garments being produced at the Rana factories when an illegally expanded building collapsed on April 24, signed on to the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh last week, joining two other North American firms and over 30 major European garment retailers.
Loblaw spokeswoman Julija Hunter told The Tyee on May 17: "We want to help make workers safe and help better the Bangladeshi garment industry. We committed to expanding the scope of our existing audit standards to include a new standard that requires all Loblaw brands produced for sale by us to be made in facilities that respect all local construction and building codes, and that we will have Loblaw employees on the ground in each country we do business. We have signed the Accord and we will be actively participating in it, which means when we are working with factories we will ensure they meet Accord fire and building safety standards."
Additionally, Hunter said, her firm has committed to contributing to a relief fund for victims and their families.
Fire and Building Safety Accord: 37 companies aboard
Meanwhile, the Retail Council of Canada has reportedly been meeting with American retailers and their trade organizations to develop more industry-friendly agreements that would substitute for the deal supported by worker advocates.
The Council did not respond to direct questions from The Tyee asking that it confirm or deny its reported involvement in the anti-Accord meetings in the U.S. However, Devon Pool, who speaks for the Council, did say by email that:
"We are still working with our members and will have more information in the weeks to come."
Industry giants The Gap and Wal Mart have both refused to join with Loblaws in endorsing the Accord, with the Gap citing perceived danger that the new binding agreement might leave signatory companies vulnerable to lawsuits and a confidence voiced by Walmart representatives that their plans for a voluntary safety procedures will be sufficient to reduce worker deaths
A Gap statement cited by the Toronto Star, the company argued that the union and NGO sponsored Accord was flawed. According the Star, the Gap's statement said:
"Companies that have supported the Accord so far are almost exclusively European. The litigation landscape in Europe is fundamentally different from the U.S. By signing the Accord as is, American companies would essentially be opening the legal floodgates on issues that have not been negotiated in sufficient detail."
Before the Rana Plaza tragedy, only two firms had signed on to an earlier version of the Fire and Building Safety Accord, and their commitment to implement the agreement was contingent on at least two additional companies joining them on the signatory list. After the Rana Plaza deaths and the global outrage that followed it, the pace of company endorsements quickened. Now, with 37 companies on board, implementation of the safety measures required can begin almost immediately, according to a statement issued by IndustriAll Global Union and UNI Global Union, two of the key groups who worked with the Clean Clothes Campaign and the Workers Rights to create the Accord.
The companies who had joined the Accord by its May 15 deadline include H&M, Inditex, C&A, PVH, Tchibo, Tesco, Marks & Spencer, Primark, El Corte Inglés, jbc, Mango, Carrefour, KiK, Helly Hansen, G-Star, Aldi, New Look, Mothercare, Loblaws, Sainsbury's, Benetton, N Brown Group, Stockmann, WE Europe, Esprit, Rewe, Next, Lidl, Hess Natur, Switcher, Abercrombie & Fitch, Bonmarche, John Lewis, Charles Vögele, V&D, Otto Group, and the oddly named Oliver."
'Walmart is out of step'
The North American face of the retail garment industry is only represented by three companies, the American PVH and Abercrombie and Fitch and Canada's Loblaw/Joe Fresh. As noted, most major American based companies, perhaps influenced by Gap and Walmart refusals, are not to be seen on the list as stood on May 17.
UNI Global Union General Secretary Philip Jennings had harsh words for the companies that have refused to sign the Accord. In a press release issued to celebrate the victory of finding 37 companies to sign the agreement, Jennings said:
"Walmart, the world's largest retailer, is out of step. By not signing up, the Walmart brand sinks to a new low. We will make progress without them."
Jennings explained that by agreeing to the binding program of fire and building safety reforms based on independent inspections, worker-led health and safety committees and union access to factories, signatories commit to underwrite improvements in dangerous factories and properly confront fire safety and structural problems.
"Importantly," he said, "the Accord grants workers the right to refuse dangerous work, in line with ILO Convention 155." Bob Jeffcott of the Canadian group the Maquila Solidarity Network told The Tyee on May 16 that one key advantage to the new Accord is that it will give unions more access to garment factories in Bangladesh, a country where organizing independent trade unions has been extremely difficult and often attended by violence directed at union organizers.
Many garment factory owners sit as members of the Bangladesh parliament, the country has a special police force tasked with discouraging "industrial unrest," and the sector accounts for nearly 80 per cent of the country's exports.
So there are powerful economic and political forces arrayed against those who are trying to improve the lives of the sector's workers. And many factory owners who do not formally sit as members of Parliament have important political connections. For example, Mohammed Sohel Rana, the owner of the building that collapsed on April 24, was a local leader of the youth wing of the ruling party, the Awami League.
The companies that have currently signed the Accord place orders with over a thousand factories in Bangladesh, out of a total number of garment factories in the poverty stricken country that is variously reported in different sources as being from four to six thousand.
Only one of the Canadian companies that had been publicly urged by activists and share holders to join the Accord by May 15 responded to Tyee requests for comment. Canadian Tire's Joscelyn Dosanjh told The Tyee by email that:
"Canadian Tire was deeply saddened to learn about the factory collapse in Bangladesh and can confirm that none of the products manufactured for our Canadian Tire Retail, Mark's or FGL Sports stores were manufactured in that facility. Approximately 40 per cent of our materials are purchased overseas, including 0.93 per cent from Bangladesh. The Company is committed to ethical business practices here in Canada and internationally, as well as the health and safety of our 85,000 employees and those of our partners. Widespread industry concern surrounding health and safety issues in Bangladesh's factories prompted Canadian Tire to conduct a thorough review and audit of the facilities it uses in the area. Over 20 factories have been audited within the last three years and no major health and safety gaps have been identified."
But Kevin Thomas, also with the MSN, told The Tyee that Canadian Tire's audits of suppliers should not provide much comfort to observers worried about worker safety.
"Loblaw's audits didn't identify any health and safety gaps either, but we now know how wrong they were. Painful experience has shown that the private auditing model has failed the workers of Bangladesh. The Accord now marks the dividing line between companies that care about workers' lives and those that don't. The only question for Canadian Tire and other retailers is which side of that line are they on."