Watch above: Have Canadian companies done enough in the year since the Rana Plaza collapse? Shirlee Engel reports.
Bangladesh’s booming garment manufacturing industry suffered its worst disaster one year ago, with the collapse of the Rana Plaza garment factory complex.
An astonishing 1,134 labourers, working in factories assembling for major international clothing retailers, died when the shoddily constructed complex crumbled to the ground. A further 2,500 were injured.
PHOTO GALLERY: Photos from the Rana Plaza collapse in Savar, Bangladesh
One year and months of outcry over working conditions later, some things have improved.
But, critics say not enough has changed to make the situation better in the world’s second biggest garment exporting nation.
Here’s a look at what Canadian companies have and haven’t done in the past 12 months to prevent another garment industry disaster.
Some of the companies whose clothing was assembled in Rana Plaza factories have compensated survivors and families of the victims, as well as signed a commitment to ensure garment workers are working in safe conditions – known as the Accord for Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh.
Among them is Joe Fresh – the clothing line owned by grocery chain Loblaw.
The company, which sells the discount clothing line in its Superstore outlets and stand-alone shops, said it has committed $5 million in relief and compensation — including $3.7 million to an International Labour Organization (ILO) trust fund for long-term compensation.
The amount also included $285,000 spent last year to provide for short-term compensation, equal to three months salary, for Rana Plaza workers.
Kevin Groh, Loblaw’s Vice-President of Corporate Affairs and Communications, said the company is one of the top contributors to the ILO trust fund. But he agrees the garment industry, as a whole, is lagging in its reaction to the disaster.
“In our view, the collective industry response to the Rana Plaza collapse has taken too long and various necessary steps have yet to be taken,” he said in a statement. But, he said change has been most notable in the inspection of factories, that could prevent another catastrophe from happening.
Other companies have opted for commitments that better suit their operations.
The Accord has led to other faulty structures being shut down and prevented the possible loss of further lives, according to Bob Jeffcott of the Maquila Solidarity Network (MSN).
Jeffcott, the policy analyst for the Toronto-based organization that works to support the rights of factory workers overseas, said there have been nearly 300 factories inspected and eight factories that “could have been new Rana Plazas” were temporarily shut down for repairs to be made.
“Unfortunately in North America, particularly in Canada, a lot of the retailers have decided they don’t like the Accord because it’s legally binding, he said.
“Instead, many of them have joined an alternative, called the Alliance [for Bangladesh Worker Safety],” Jeffcott explained.
The Alliance is much weaker in the MSN’s eyes: it’s not independently controlled and “[it] doesn’t disclose as much information as to what they’re finding in the factories,” Jeffcott said.
He said he believes both liability and cost are behind the decision by some companies to forego signing onto the Accord.
“Under the Accord, companies have to underwrite the costs of improvements in the factories when problems are found. It doesn’t mean they have to pay it all themselves, but they have to ensure that it is paid by someone.”
He pointed out that only one company, out of 166 retailers that have signed on, is Canadian.
At a press conference in Ottawa on Wednesday, World Vision Canada listed off some of the major companies in Canada that preferred the Alliance to the Accord: Canadian Tire (including Mark’s Work WearHouse and Sport Chek), Target Canada, The Children’s Place, Hudson’s Bay Company and YM Inc., which owns shopping mall staples such as Bluenotes, Suzy Shier and Urban Planet.
World Vision Canada President Dave Toysen told media that 87 per cent of Canadians surveyed feel companies “should be legally obligated to provide Canadians with information about the working conditions in their factories, wages and [to] commit to not using child labour.”
Organizations such as World Vision and MSN want Canadian companies to be legally bound to sign onto the Accord.
NDP Member of Parliament Matthew Kellway, who tabled a motion on the Accord in the House of Commons last month, flew to Bangladesh for the anniversary and will be at the site of the disaster, in suburban Dhaka, for commemoration events.
He’s met with the officials in the Foreign Affairs and Finance ministries, the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association.
Kellway told Global News he feels progress has been made. But in speaking with survivors and victims’ families, he learned there are people who are still waiting for compensation a year later.
“Many people are still waiting for the bodies of their loved ones to be identified,” he said in a phone interview. “There’s no comprehensive list at this point in time of the dead.”
He said there is “a seed of a better future” for Bangladeshi garment workers in the accord, but he’s not sure what the government is going to do with his motion.
“That motion is just sitting there in the House,” Kellway said, adding it’s “profoundly disappointing” that only one Canadian retailer has signed onto the Accord.
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