In the wake of the Rana Plaza collapse in Dhaka last April, which killed more than 1,100 Bangladeshi garment workers, the international media has sustained a focus on how Western clothing is made and how trade unions and workers making those clothes in countries like Bangladesh and Cambodia are systematically abused. In Canada, this has taken the welcome and largely unprecedented form of examining specifically how Canadian brands operate in South and Southeast Asia and how the clothes in Canadian stores get to market. For the most part, the response from brands has been underwhelming.
Why and how has this been the case? Prior to Rana Plaza, Canadian brands had been able to operate largely under the radar. Well-known in Canada, they are virtually anonymous internationally and were largely ill-equipped and unprepared to deal with the public firestorm that ensued. The global media does not regularly pressure Canadian brands, so if the Canadian media does not, no others will.
Secondly, there has been little pressure under Canadian law to enforce and ensure that worker rights are linked to allowing garments into Canada from Bangladesh and Cambodia. Like the European Union and the United States, in an effort to support specific industries in poor countries, Canada offers privileges and eliminates tariffs on a variety of items, including garments. However, unlike its counterparts, Canada sets almost no worker, or trade union rights "conditions"on goods coming into the country thereby ensuring a weak position when it comes to advocating for improved conditions for workers making clothes for Canadian stores. This has resulted in a boon for Canadian brands and local garment manufacturers and provided little recourse for workers at the bottom.
Around the world, the ready-made garment industry seeks out and flourishes in countries where the labour law and its enforcement are weak and systematic poverty pushes people to work under intolerable conditions. Workers' vulnerability is exacerbated in developing countries like Cambodia and Bangladesh that have become completely dependent on the garment industry for economic survival and therefore, have little resources or incentive to inspect factories, ensure legal compliance or pay a living wage. Brands, meanwhile have the power to demand razor-thin margins and harsh production deadlines-dictates that often manifest in miserable and dangerous working conditions for people simply trying to work their way out of the cycle of poverty.
While deadly factory incidents are not uncommon in the garment sector, Rana Plaza may prove to be the breaking point that affords a real chance for garment workers and unions to secure rights and the legal protections promised them-not only in Bangladesh, but in Cambodia and elsewhere. To date, 100 global apparel brands have signed the Bangladesh Fire and Building Safety Accord endorsed by most international trade union groups. The accord, to which one Canadian brand, Loblaw, was an early signatory, has worker rights and independent trade unionism at its core. Other Canadian brands have not signed the agreement which commits to making all garment factories in Bangladesh safe work places.
The recent Bangladesh disasters have had a spillover effect in Cambodia which saw its own less deadly factory incident just weeks after Rana Plaza collapsed. In Cambodia, progress is being made on issues surrounding a living wage, enhanced workplace safety, job security and genuine worker rights. These discussions are taking place between unions, advocacy groups and brands that have signed onto the ILO Better Factories program. To date, only one Canadian brand has joined that program. As a result, the bulk of Canadian brands are not at the table.
There are a sufficient number of Canadian brands, trade volume and, frankly, room for dramatic improvement to fashion a uniquely Canadian response to the plight of garment workers overseas making clothing for Canadians-and worker rights, workplace safety and a living wage should be at its core. It remains to be seen whether Canadian brands will remain behind the curve on these issues or whether they and the Canadian government will rise to the occasion.
Canadian consumers, who hold more leverage than they know in the global apparel supply chain, should demand that they do. Or, in keeping with a Canadian approach, ask politely, but firmly.
Dave Welsh is a Canadian lawyer and currently the country director of the AFL-CIO Solidarity Center in Cambodia. From 2006-2010 he held the same position in Bangladesh