I Don’t Buy (it) Joe Fresh: The Bangladesh Factory Collapse and Why Sorry Isn’t Enough

CTA News has reported this morning that Canadian retailers are meeting today in Toronto to discuss the work conditions of third-world factories, following the tragic factory collapse in Bangladesh that has killed over 380 people. The meeting is being hosted by the Retail Council of Canada, and Loblaw Co Ltd (the company responsible for Joe Fresh is participating).

No doubt the global fashion industry – including Joe Fresh – is responding to mounting media attention on factory conditions. A recent article by Ron Nurwisah in The Huffington Post pointed out that CBC journalists tweeted out a photo from the Worker’s Rights Consortium, showing a Joe Fresh garment lying amongst the rubble. Scott Nova, executive director of the Worker’s Rights Consortium, acknowledges that the company had admitted it had garments produced in the factory, and urges it to move promptly to aid those harmed and improve safety conditions moving forward.

I’ve had a look at the Joe Fresh website this morning and they have a condolence notice expressing their sadness at the tragedy, saying that they helping impacted employees and families, and explaining that they are consulting with government (via the Ministry of Foreign Affairs) and labor organisations (including the Canadian Maquila Solidarity Network).

It will be very interesting to see what steps emerge out of the meeting of Canadian retailers. A key part of the Joe Fresh apology has been it’s claim that despite not yet addressing the structural conditions of it’s factory buildings,

‘Loblaws Inc. Vendor standards are designed to ensure that products are manufactured in a socially responsible way, for a safe and sustainable work environment. Our audits align with those of industry around the world…’

Here’s where it gets gritty. Their audits align with those of the manufacturing industry, that is the people making the money. Julhas Alam and Kay Johnson, Associated Press, have pointed out that since 2011, Labour groups have been pushing for a safety proposal drawn up by Bangladeshi and international unions. The safety proposal argued for independent safety inspections, recognising that local officials and government are too influenced by industry demands. It would also be legally binding. This proposal hasn’t been taken up by big companies because of the costs involved.

So let’s get real. Clothing is a $ 1- Trillion dollar global industry, of which Bangladesh represents around $20 billion. There are 4000 factories in Bangladesh alone. Workers killed in the collapse of the Rana Plaza were earning as little as $38 a month.

Clothing companies manufacture garments in Bangladesh because it’s cheap. Cheap labor means more profit. So when Joe Fresh argues that it’s factory audits align with industry standards, it means the standards considered adequate by an industry based on extracting cheap labor.

Whatever steps emerge out of the meeting of Canadian retailers today, I’m going to be a bit cynical about the extent of this for progressing fair and safe work environments. Why? It’s like assuming a room full of cats could come up with safety measures for mice. Retailer’s financial stake in this tragedy is ensuring that bad press about factory conditions doesn’t drive down share prices or profit. That’s not the same stake as factory workers wanting for personal safety and security, and fair wages.

At a minimum, I think Joe Fresh needs to sign up to the Bangladesh Building and Fire Safety Agreement

BUT Joe Fresh also needs to be more transparent with the Canadian public about what it it paying Bangladeshi workers.

Joe Fresh’s website has those generic photos of thin white women wearing this season’s spring colors. A peasant top. A mint green pencil skirt. I couldn’t help imagining what the website would look like if they included photos of their Bangladeshi workers, and maybe grieving family members, alongside the free-and-easy gambit of their white model. Canada, lets stop pretending to be the good guys. Lets own our part of this, as consumers, as a nation. Because isn’t it really about how we can all look at clothes, even by brands that claim social responsibility, and forget that there are other people – equally human – working long hours in factories to earn less a month then the cost of a peasant shirt.

If you are moved by this, you can sign a petition calling on the Bangladesh government to remove laws that restrict freedom of association (meaning that most workers can’t unionize) and demand minimum wage for garment workers. You can check out Manquila Solidarity Network. Or you can email Joe Fresh.

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