After each of the fatal accidents to hit the garment industry supply chain over the past 11 months, Western brands caught up in the aftermath have given the same answer in response to public outrage: we didn't know.
In the case of the Rana Plaza disaster, which saw 1,129 Bangladeshi workers crushed to death in April when eight floors of factories collapsed, that appears to have been the case. Brands like Joe Fresh – which sent its orders to the factory via two intermediary companies – knew that the building was certified as safe by Bangladeshi inspectors. Industry insiders, and the Bangladeshi government, now admit that corruption made those certificates undependable.
But groups involved in improving safety conditions say that there are programs in place to better provide accurate information to retailers about the safety records of the factories producing the products they sell at home. Cambodia, another major producer of apparel that ends up on North American store shelves, has a program designed to keep an eye on worker rights and safety conditions on the factory floor. Most of the big Canadian brands that source some of their clothing in Cambodia don't buy its reports directly, but two have contracts with middlemen that do so.
Better Factories Cambodia (BFC), a partnership between the International Labour Organization and the International Finance Corporation, makes unannounced visits at least once a year to all clothing factories that have export permits. BFC hasn't had the power to publicly embarrass factories that violated labour and safety standards, and has been criticized by many in the industry for making its reports on pay and working conditions available only to paying members. But that is about to change: in January, it will start publicly naming and shaming delinquent factories it has visited. The Cambodia program was the model for a similar Better Work Bangladesh program that is meant to send impartial monitors to inspect an industry 10 times the size of Cambodia's. But Canadian companies have been slow to sign on to these initiatives. Vancouver-based Lululemon Athletica Inc. is the only Canadian company on the list of paying members with BFC.
Canadian companies have yet to face the kinds of consumer-awareness campaigns and boycotts that battered the images of big global companies like The Gap and H&M over conditions in the factories they use to source products. "There have always been bigger targets," said David Welsh, an Ottawa native who heads the Phnom Penh office of the Solidarity Center, an American non-profit organization that supports trade unions in developing countries. "It's much easier to go after the Walmarts, the H&Ms, the Nikes,"
Hudson's Bay Co., Reitmans Ltd. and Loblaw Cos Ltd., which produces the Joe Fresh label, all source clothing in Cambodia without paying for the reports. Hong Kong-based middle company Li & Fung, which connects Hudson's Bay and Loblaw to many of the factories they use and is supposed to monitor them on its clients' behalf, is a paying member and would have access to the reports. Mary Turner, an executive vice-president at HBC, said it pays a premium for Li & Fung to ensure factories adhere to ethical standards.
Some change may be coming. Loblaw has been in touch with Better Factories Cambodia in the past two months and is considering joining, Bob Chant, senior vice-president of corporate affairs and communications, said in an interview Tuesday. The company also met with the leaders of Better Work Bangladesh on a visit to the country in May, and may consider membership when that initiative is "ready to roll out," he said.
HBC spokeswoman Tiffany Bourré said that while it isn't a paying member of BFC, HBC lends support by "promoting [the program] and encouraging factories to participate." The company, she added, has its own resources to "gather information and enforce our social compliance and ethical sourcing guidelines."
Jeremy Reitman, chief executive officer of Reitmans, said in a recent interview with the Globe that his firm doesn't need to sign on to Better Factories Cambodia because its Hong Kong office takes care of factory monitoring.
Canadian Tire Corp. Ltd., which also owns retail brands including Mark's and Sport Chek, did not respond to questions about whether the company plans to sign on to BFC or its Bangladesh counterpart. In an e-mailed statement, it said it has put its faith in a separate initiative created just three months ago, the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety, to improve garment-industry conditions in Bangladesh.
"Canadian Tire Corporation is one of the founding members of the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety, which we believe will lead to fire and building safety improvements for factory workers in Bangladesh," a spokesperson said in an e-mailed statement.
There have been few outside incentives for Canadian companies to pursue safety standards down the entire chain of supply for the clothes they sell cheaply on the home market. While the United States built the Better Factories monitoring into its 1993 trade agreement with Cambodia, Canadian companies have been able to import garments from Bangladesh and Cambodia tariff-free because of their status as "least-developed countries," a designation introduced in 2004 that comes with no labour requirements.
(The U.S., Australian and South Korean governments all provide funding to Better Factories. Canada does not.)