What does Loblaw’s ‘force of good’ vow mean to Bangladesh?

Matthew Coutts
Daily Brew

The full impact of a devastating textile factory collapse in Bangladesh has not been fully felt in Canada, nor will it ever — not really. The death of some 500 garment makers a world away is hard to understand or quantify in any tangible way.

They were strangers to us, their daily struggles were unseen by us. If not for Canadian labels found on clothes strewn through the wreckage, Canadians may have never realized, or ever considered, that the clothes they died to make were being worn on our backs.

If not for that link, the tragedy in Dhaka, Bangladesh would have been another of the countless tragedies Canadians hear about in passing before forgetting when the next international disaster took its place on the fringes of our consciences.

This time, however, the collapse tied directly back to Canada when Loblaw Inc., the company behind the Canadian Joe Fresh label, confirmed that it was contracting out clothes manufacturing to a company that operated out of the building.

[ Related: Joe Fresh vows to be 'force for good' in Bangladesh ]

The first round of Loblaw’s public statements claimed they had reason to believe all was well in the Bangladesh operation, right up to the moment that eight storeys of walls and floors and concrete support beams toppled in on themselves.

But the public had been galvanized and the fallout from the devastation plumed outward and hovered over our country. The company announced it would investigate the working conditions of those factory workers, reconsider its manufacturing strategy and, this week, it promised change.

Executive chairman Galen Weston, a very public face of the company, now claims the company will take a leading role in revolutionizing the industry in Bangladesh. He promised the company would be a "force of good."

Would any force be enough to change inherent flaws in the system? Companies contract out manufacturing to overseas outfits to keep costs down. The other side of that coin is that dangerous concessions are made along the line. Building codes never followed, wages never balanced.

Weston said others in the industry that have kept silent following the collapse have to step forward and join the cause as well. He made three promises, vowing they would make a difference:

  • A relief fund to provide long-term support to victims of the collapse and their families
  • A new business standard demanding all products be made in facilities that follow local construction and building codes
  • A plan to install Loblaw employees in factories to make sure company's values are met.

The promise falls far short of substantive change, according to Kevin Thomas, director of the Maquila Solidarity Network. The network has been working to improve global working conditions for 20 years and says vague promises won't change anything.

"More audits are not the answer. We’ve had years of this kind of auditing and its failure can be measured in the increasing body count in Bangladesh – over 1,000 workers killed in fires and factory collapses over the last eight years," Thomas said in an email exchange with Yahoo! Canada News.

"What Loblaw needs to do is join the Bangladesh Fire and Building Safety agreement being negotiated with IndustriALL and other international brands. There is no better alternative out there, and trying to go it alone is a step backwards."

IndustriALL is a global union currently demanding international clothing brands join forces to ensure building safety in Bangladesh. The group sent a May 15 deadline but so far, Joe Fresh is not among their members.

Thomas has taken the helm in trying to bring the company on board, and has a group of 23 Canadian organizations rallying on his behalf, including the B.C. Federation of Labour, the Canadian Auto Workers and the Canadian Union of Public Employees.

"It goes without saying that any company that was sourcing from these factories needs to step up to the plate and do its part. But there are companies – like PVH (the company behind Tommy Hilfiger, Calvin Klein and others) – that have stepped up to create a lasting change in Bangladesh," Thomas wrote.

"Joe Fresh should be working with those companies to support a comprehensive, transparent and effective safety program in Bangladesh rather than setting out on their own."

[ More Brew: Canadians vow Joe Fresh boycott; company vows to improve ]

Bangladesh is home to a $20 billion garment industry and the thought of a backlash could put three million people out of work. Atiqul Islam, president of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers, told Reuters it was vital the industry addressed its reputation of poor safety measures and low wages.

"We are doing our best to improve the safety measures in the factories. We expect our buyers to bear with us and help us to overcome the current crisis. It's not the time to turn away from us. That will hurt the industry and many of the workers will lose jobs," Islam said, according to the newsgroup.

The country also benefits from various free trade agreements designed to help poorer nations. To keep those safe, a full-blown industry renewal may be necessary. And something like that is much harder to accomplish if companies are doing their portions piecemeal.

"You cannot create a safety culture and functioning labour-management relations without worker participation and union presence," IndustriALL general secretary Jyrki Raina said in a statement.

Loblaw says it is working with local authorities to improve working conditions. It has promised change. And while some say the changes won’t be enough, at least the company is speaking up.

But there is a long span between speaking up and being a force of good. Making changes would be the first step; making strong, long-lasting changes would be the second.

And it does not get any easier from there.

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