A Toronto-based labour rights group is calling on Loblaw and other Canadian garment retailers to reform their policies in order to prevent tragedies like the building collapse in Bangladesh last week—the worst industrial accident in the country’s history.
On Monday Canada’s Loblaw Companies Ltd., owner of the Joe Fresh fashion label, promised compensation for the families of victims of the April 24 building collapse that killed hundreds of workers.
Joe Fresh was one of the brands produced in the building, which housed several factories. The building collapsed due to illegal building practices that failed to meet minimum safety requirements.
Although Joe Fresh is the only Canadian brand that has publicly acknowledged sourcing clothes from the building, websites for some of the factories identified several other Canadian retailers as customers.
“First and foremost [the problem] is the system of global production that looks at the cheapest possible place to make clothing, without regard for the consequences,” says Kevin Thomas, director of advocacy for the Maquila Solidarity Network (MSN), a labour and women’s rights organization.
“Any time you have companies trying to cut corners and costs at any expense you’re going to have problems like this.”
Thomas says while he is happy that Loblaw has agreed to compensate the victim’s families, the company, as well as other Canadian retailers, need to make concerted efforts to improve basic standards when sourcing their clothing.
“This is not the first—and unless something changes very quickly—this won’t be the last disaster to plague the industry there,” he says.
Twenty three prominent Canadian trade unions, NGOs, and faith organizations are also calling on Loblaw to take immediate steps to ensure that the deaths and injuries suffered by the workers in the collapse of the Rana Plaza building are not repeated.
Safety Training, Worker’s Rights
An essential reform, Thomas suggests, is for companies to sign the Bangladesh Fire and Building Safety Agreement, which has already been signed by two major retailers: PVH, owners of the Tommy Hilfiger and Calvin Klein labels, and German retailer Tchibo.
The agreement would ensure companies conduct independent factory inspections and publicly disclose the lists of garment factories being inspected.
For those that fail to fix problems identified, safety training for workers and management personnel would be mandatory, as well as functioning worker/management health and safety committees, and the right of workers to file complaints and to refuse unsafe work.
“The underlying problems that caused this and other preventable tragedies in Bangladeshi garment factories will not be solved by more of the same factory audits and certifications by private sector auditing firms with no information made available to the public,” notes Thomas.
“What we need is a comprehensive program of independent inspections in which workers have an informed and active role and consumers are fully informed of the results.”
MSN is also calling on Canadian companies sourcing from Bangladesh to disclose their factory audit reports, including corrective action proposed and taken, for all their supplier factories so that consumers and labour rights groups can evaluate the quality of the audits, and track whether progress is being made on workplace safety and other issues.
Thomas adds that if retailers are willing to make these improvements, the cost to the consumer would be negligible.
“You could improve the situation in Bangladeshi factories for just pennies on a garment, and I think most consumers would be willing to pay that. The point is, you need a real commitment from the retailer at the brand level to make sure that those programs are in place, and that workers are being paid a living wage.”
Boycott Not a Solution
Boycotting retailers is not an effective strategy to drive change, Thomas notes, because the workers end up suffering due to less work and reduced wages. Instead, he suggests consumers contact the retailers directly and demand change.
“We think the real power that consumers have is to communicate with the company directly, tell them that you expect them to do better on this, you expect them to get involved in a comprehensive program that will make sure that the clothes you’re buying are being produced in fair conditions, he says. ”
“The more unhappy customers they get in touch with the better. But we don’t advocate that people stay away from stores—we’re advocating people go into those stores and raise these issues with whoever is willing to listen.”
On Monday Loblaw and several other Canadian retailers met with the Retail Council of Canada to talk about working conditions in sweatshops in developing countries. Loblaw has said it is working to prevent future accidents.
“Our priorities are helping the victims and their families, and driving change to help prevent similar incidents in the future. Our heartfelt condolences continue to go out to those in Savar, Bangladesh,” said a statement from the company.