TORONTO – As rescuers continued to pull corpses and survivors from the rubble of a collapsed garment factory in Bangladesh, some consumers in Canada were shocked to learn that items from their favourite brands were made there.
The building collapsed Wednesday killing at least 238 people, many of them poorly paid workers who were forced to keep producing clothes even after police ordered an evacuation due to deep, visible cracks in the walls.
Canadian clothing line Joe Fresh was among the customers of the garment factories operating in the building.
Natalie Erb, 24, shops at Joe Fresh at least once a week for everything from yoga clothes to office wear, she said. The news out of Bangladesh has the loyal customer disturbed about her purchases.
“To be honest, I had never really done much research into where Joe Fresh manufactures their clothing, but knowing what I do now, I’m hugely disappointed in the company,” said the Halifax woman.
“I don’t know if I’ll be buying from the line anytime soon, or ever again for that matter.”
Joe Fresh parent company Loblaw (TSX:L) released a statement saying some Joe Fresh items were made in the factory and offered its condolences to the victims and their families.
The company said it requires vendors to ensure products are being manufactured in a socially responsible way, prohibiting child harassment, abuse and forced labour, as well as ensuring fair pay, benefits and health and safety standards.
“We audit against these standards on a regular basis,” the company said.
Worker Rights Consortium, a labour-rights monitoring organization, first circulated a photo of a Joe Fresh label amid the rubble in Bangladesh.
The country is the “worst place in the world for apparel workers,” said the group’s executive director.
But it’s certainly not alone, said Scott Nova, and that should come as no surprise to no one.
“It has been well known for many years that most of the apparel bought and worn by people in Canada and the U.S. and Europe is made in developing countries where the industries are defined by low wages and poor working conditions,” he said from Washington, D.C.
“You can try to buy stuff that’s made in Canada or made in the U.S., you can buy from a handful of niche brands that generally produce under better conditions, but 99.9 per cent of the apparel that’s offered for sale to consumers is made in sweatshops.”
Among the garment makers in the building were Phantom Apparels, Phantom Tac, Ether Tex, New Wave Style and New Wave Bottoms. Altogether, they produced several million shirts, pants and other garments a year.
The New Wave companies, according to their website, make clothing for major brands including North American retailers The Children’s Place and Dress Barn, Britain’s Primark, Spain’s Mango and Italy’s Benetton. Ether Tex said Wal-Mart, the world’s biggest retailer, was one of its customers.
Primark acknowledged it was using a factory in Rana Plaza, but many other retailers distanced themselves from the disaster, saying they were not involved with the factories at the time of the collapse or had not recently ordered garments from them.
Wal-Mart said it was investigating, and Mango said it had only discussed production of a test sample of clothing with one of the factories.
The disaster in Bangladesh is the worst ever for the country’s booming and powerful garment industry, surpassing a fire five months ago that killed 112 people and brought widespread pledges to improve the country’s worker-safety standards.
Instead, very little has changed in Bangladesh, where wages, among the lowest in the world, have made it a magnet for numerous global brands.
Erb said she was glad to see Loblaw acknowledge its link to the factory and send condolences, and she hopes it spurs better oversight of outsourced labour.
“Invisible borders should never determine the safety of a person who essentially works for a Canadian company,” she said.
Bangladesh has about 4,000 garment factories and exports clothes to leading Western retailers, and industry leaders hold great influence in the South Asian nation.
The country’s minimum wage is now the equivalent of about $38 a month.
Workers there often make 18 cents an hour and work long days, six days a week, Nova said.
“There is a very close connection between sub-poverty wages and the lax regulation that perpetuates poor working conditions and the ability of factories to offer the extremely low prices that brands and retailers crave,” he said.
“Indeed it is the relentless drive of North American and European brands and retailers for ever-lower prices and ever-faster delivery times that gives these factories overwhelming incentives to operate unsafely.”
Officials in Bangladesh said soon after the collapse that numerous construction regulations had been violated.
— with files from The Associated Press