Bangladesh garment factory collapse raises questions about consumer choices

TORONTO – As the death toll in a garment factory collapse in Bangladesh surpasses 400 people, many Canadian consumers may be taking a long look at their closet.

Wednesday morning an eight-story factory with 2,000 people inside collapsed, killing more than 400. The disaster has drawn international attention to the notoriously unsafe working conditions in Bangladesh’s $20 billion clothing industry.

The day before the collapse, deep cracks in the walls of Rana Plaza were reported. Police ordered an evacuation, and the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association asked the factories to suspend work starting Wednesday morning, hours before the collapse. “After we got the crack reports, we asked them to suspend work until further examination, but they did not pay heed,” said Atiqul Islam, the group’s president.

The factory manufactured clothing for major clothing lines around the world, including Canadian brand Joe Fresh.

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Workers in Bangladesh garment factories make only $0.18 an hour, mass producing $10 t-shirts that Canadians consumers can stock up on at the grocery store, also known as “disposable clothing” or impulse buys, like packs of gum at the checkout.

Loblaw, the parent company of Joe Fresh, spokesperson Julija Hunter confirmed in an email to Global News that the collapsed complex included a “factory that produced a small number of Joe Fresh apparel items for Loblaws Inc.”

The company promptly issued a statement, offering condolences to the victims of the tragedy in Bangladesh, adding it has vendor standards, which ensure products are manufactured “in a socially responsible way, and specifically prohibiting child harassment and abuse or forced labour.”

On Thursday the company issued another statement, adding that “in light of the recent tragedies in Bangladesh we recognize that these measures do not address the issue of building construction or integrity…We want to improve and we want to find a solution that helps stop these incidents from happening.”

Labour regulations and discount retailers

As rescue workers scramble to pull bodies from the rubble in Bangladesh, Canadian consumers and governments are being urged to pay closer attention to the labels sewn into their clothing.

Canada is a member of the International Labour Organization (ILO), a United Nations agency that works to promote international labour standards. The ILO identifies fundamental conventions, or legally binding international treaties, as basic labour principles and rights, including the right of association, the right to collective bargaining, the abolition of child labour and all forms of forced or compulsory labour.

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Canada, being a signatory of the ILO’s conventions, has agreed to uphold these standards within its own borders. However, there is currently no legislation prohibiting the import of goods manufactured in places that do not adhere to similar conventions.

In December 2011, NDP MP Peter Julian introduced Bill C-378 to the House of Commons. The Prohibition on Importing Goods Produced by Sweatshop Labour Act would prohibit importing goods into Canada that were produced or manufactured – in whole or in part – in working conditions that do not meet the standards set out by the ILO.

“Sweatshop goods should not be brought into Canada. There should not be a way of getting around the ILO standards,” said Julian as he introduced the bill. “In areas where there is compulsory labour, no right to free association and to organize collectively and where those fundamental human rights are violated, Canada should say no to the goods coming from those sweatshops,” he said.

The first reading of the bill was on Dec. 7, 2011. Its status has been unchanged since then.

While government legislation may be a logical next step toward ensuring safer labour practices in factories, workers rights groups say the companies themselves hold great power in forcing change.

“The real power lies with Western brands and retailers, beginning with the biggest players: Walmart, H & M, Inditex, Gap and others,” said Scott Nova, executive director of Worker Rights Consortium.

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Kevin Thomas, director of advocacy at the Maquila Solidarity Network said in an interview with Global News that when it comes to discount retailers in Canada, “there are some prices below which you shouldn’t go.”

“And that is a price that guarantees…that the workers have a basic and safe workplace that they can rely on. If you can’t guarantee that with the price you’re selling your goods at, then you’ve got to raise the price,” said Thomas.

Tools for Canadian consumers

Canada’s Competition Bureau offers an online search tool where consumers can find out what company owns a clothing brand and where the company is based, by searching by the CA number printed on the garment’s label, but this identification applies only to Canadian manufacturers.

The Canadian Apparel Federation’s website lists Canadian clothing manufacturers, although you need to be a member of the CAF to access the full database.

The Workers Rights Consortium investigates garment factories and works to fight sweatshops and protect the rights of workers who make apparel. The organization makes its reports on the conditions of factories worldwide available online. Consumers can search for reports by country or the brand of clothing manufactured there.

Consumers can also seek out companies that sell only fair trade or sweatshop-free clothing and consult ethical consumer guides.

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One piece of advice from experts is for consumers to take their message to the companies they currently buy from:

“People have got to tell the companies that the places where they shop, be it Joe Fresh, Benetton or The Children’s Place, that they actually care about these issues and that they demand that the goods that they’re buying are made under safe conditions,” said Thomas.

And although those safer labour conditions will raise the price of the $10 t-shirts Canadians love so much, “I think if you told consumers that the goods that they’re buying could be made safely for only pennies more, they’d be very willing to shop at a store that did that,” Thomas said.

*With files from Global News and The Associated Press