The federal government has kicked in funding for an international effort to boost worker safety in Bangladesh clothing factories, which manufacture products for many Canadian retailers.
Canada's $8-million over four years, announced on Thursday, will help the International Labour Organization (ILO) offer technical support to Bangladesh's government to inspect its factories in response to the collapse of Rana Plaza earlier this year, in which 1,129 people died.
The funding is for the Improving Working Conditions in the Ready-Made Garment Sector program, which the ILO announced on Oct. 22. The $25-million program will help Bangladeshi authorities develop safety standards and working conditions for factories, and conduct inspections.
The funding is coming from Canada, the UK and the Netherlands. Ottawa said in a statement on Thursday that improving working conditions in Bangladesh is an "imperative," although one with "complex and serious challenges."
Who will pay for any needed improvements at many of the factories is unclear.
Canadian retailers continue to be divided on a response to calls for higher safety standards. Loblaw has signed on to the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, developed by Bangladeshi and international labour groups, which some watchdogs say is the most stringent effort to improve conditions. The accord includes transparent reporting of inspections and a requirement that retailers help pay to keep factories safe.
Other chains, including the Hudson's Bay Corporation, Canadian Tire, Walmart Canada and Giant Tiger, have joined the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety, put together by an international coalition retailers. Critics say that is the weaker agreement.
One critic says Canada should force its companies to sign the accord rather than funding an inspection regime with no clarity on who will make repairs.
"The best thing the government could do today is say, 'If you want to bring in clothes from Bangladesh, sign the [accord]," Jim Sinclair, president of the B.C. Federation of Labour, said on Thursday. "...It is the most comprehensive thing that's been done, and Canadian companies, with the exception of one, have refused to sign."
In a statement, the Canadian government said it favours neither the accord nor the alliance, and stopped short of calling on companies to adopt either. Canada "encourages and expects Canadian companies working abroad to respect all applicable laws and international standards," the Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development department said.
Many factories, however, are not part of the accord or the alliance – and the ILO and the Bangladesh government have signalled that this group will be the focus of initial inspections, said Scott Nova, executive director of the Washington-based Worker Rights Consortium, an independent labour rights monitoring group.
Many of those factories produce "for less well-known brands, who may be brands that therefore feel less public pressure, which might mean some of those factories might be particularly high-risk," he said. And there is no indication who will finance renovations in those other factories.
"Unlike with the accord, it's entirely unclear who is going to pay for those repairs, renovations and retrofitting, to the extent that the factories cannot afford it – as will be the case in many instances," Mr. Nova said.
Since the Rana Plaza collapse earlier this year, many inspections have been done, but the results are rarely made public, Mr. Nova said. Those are his top two concerns: a lack of public information about which factories need repairs, and figuring out who will pay for the repairs.
He said Canada's funding commitment is positive, but the government could do more.
"If the Canadian government will push the Bangladeshis to provide real transparency in this program, and push Canadian companies to provide the financial resources necessary for the covered factories – that are producing for those Canadian companies – to actually afford to become safe, that would be an approach that would be effective," he said.
Canada is an ILO member, and contributed $14.7-million in funding last year to the organization. Thursday's announcement is on top of that, and Canada has also been one of the ILO's top-10 sources of extra donations – another $45.9-million between 2008 and 2012.