Canada’s Joe Fresh thought conditions at collapsed Bangladeshi factory were OK

Matthew Coutts
Daily Brew

At last count, more than 220 people were killed in the collapse of a Bangladeshi building housing several garment factories, where thousands of workers hemmed and sewed clothes for various companies, including Canada's Joe Fresh brand.

The search for survivors continues on Thursday, more than 24 hours after the eight-story building cracked and toppled, crashing to the ground and pinning workers under a mound of rubble.

The number of fatalities is bound to go up. Fingers of blame are already being pointed. Reuters reports that the building's owner, a local politician, had been warned the building was not safe – that  dangerous cracks began forming on walls a day earlier. A bank on the main floor of the building had been closed but the factories continued to run, their employees told there was no danger.

[ Related: Many trapped in Bangladesh building rubble as death toll rises ]

Police told Reuters that the building's owner is now on the run. The country has declared a day of mourning. The families of more than 220 textile workers suffer from the loss.

Those companies, including Joe Fresh, are left to question their role in the tragedy.

Loblaws Inc., the owner of Joe Fresh, confirmed on Thursday that they had a factory in the building, but denied knowing the employees were working in unsafe conditions.

A statement released to Yahoo! Canada News reads:

We are extremely saddened to learn of the collapse of a building complex in Bangladesh and our condolences go out to those affected by this tragedy.... We will be working with our vendor to understand how we may be able to assist them during this time.

Loblaws Inc. has vendor standards, which spell out the standard requirements of working with us to ensure that products are being manufactured in a socially responsible way, and specifically prohibiting child harassment and abuse or forced labour; and ensuring fair pay and benefits and compliance with applicable health and safety regulations. We audit against these standards on a regular basis.

It was Loblaws' belief that all was well in their Bangladeshi outfit, but was that a fair assumption? The reason North American companies seek offshore manufactures is well known. It keeps down the cost of doing business. Employee wages are low, their benefits are negligible. Their working conditions often atrocious.

And in the end, those savings mean consumers can buy hoodies for $15, or electronics for fractions of what they would otherwise cost.

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War on Want, a UK anti-poverty group, accused Western retailers of playing a role in keeping working conditions poor in Bangladesh, connecting the "huge profits" companies make to the "appalling health and safety conditions" of such factories.

The National Post's Nathalie Atkinson also addresses that connection in an article, writing that consumers are culpable in such tragedies due our demand for cheap products.

Atkinson writes:

Everybody gets dressed in the morning. Everybody eats. We deplore unsustainable fishing and boast about the local, deliciously morally superior fare in our fridge, while the dirty secret of how a cashmere sweater that’s supercute! can cost just! $29! gets pushed further to the back of our closets. And minds. Unless we start talking about the effects (and ethics) of the accelerated appetite for fashion trends and the cheap, mindless consumption it creates and feeds, eventually we’ll choke on the hanger.

How far down the hill does responsibility for the deaths of these 220 garment workers roll? Does it end at the building owner, who is alleged to have knowingly sent thousands of workers into an unsafe building? Does it go as far as the companies that produce their products in such places, shielded by a set of “vendor standards” they expect will be upheld? Does blame go as far as us?

This is a question that those in Bangladesh will debate, or not, another day. Today, they are still busy digging bodies out of the rubble.