Death and Fashion: Canadians shining a spotlight on worker safety in Bangladesh

Dhaka, Bangladesh. The rickshaw capital of the world and a city bustling with over 15 million people, making it the 8th largest city in the world. Traffic suffocates the city roads as cars, bikes and rickshaws do a chaotic dance in the congested urban landscape. Clean water only comes in bottles, the city power flickers on and off and it is the hottest weather Dhaka has seen in 50 years.

It was a year ago that the Rana Plaza collapsed in Savar, Bangladesh near Dhaka. This was not an accident; the building's foundation was designed for four stories, yet was built eight stories high. It was not built for manufacturing, where thousands of sewing machines were set out row on row, nor did it have the strength to house its industrial generators on the top floors of the building.

When cracks appeared in the foundation the building was evacuated, however garment workers manufacturing apparel for brands including Benetton, Bonmarché, the Children's Place, El Corte Inglés, Joe Fresh, Mango, Matalan, Primark and Wal Mart, were forced back to work with threats of violence and loss of pay.

The other workers in the plaza, including bank and shop employees, had evacuated and did not return --1134 workers died and 2515 were seriously injured.

Matthew Kellway, an NDP MP for Beaches-East York in Toronto led a Canadian delegation of Union Leaders to Dhaka, Bangladesh comprising of Canada's largest trade unions, including The United Steelworkers of Canada (USW), UNIFOR, Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE), The Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC) and The United Food and Commercial Workers of Canada (UFCW). The goal of the trip was to commemorate the tragedy of Rana Plaza on the first year anniversary, to continue to shine a global spotlight on the Bangladesh garment industry, to hold accountable retail brands who profit on the backs of these workers (most of whom are women), to put pressure on those retail brands to sign the 'Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh' and to share in the sorrow and listen to the Bangladeshis' stories of a year ago.

The delegation met with Bangladeshi garment workers, union leaders, business owners, government officials, including the Secretaries of Foreign Affairs, Labour and Commerce and the Minister of Commerce, the Canadian High Commissioner to Canada, and the survivors and their families of the Rana Plaza collapse.

The Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh is a critical initiative coming out of the Rana Plaza disaster. If adopted by all parties and implemented successfully the Accord will bring Bangladesh Health and Safety Standards up to an acceptable international standard.

Most importantly, it provides inspections that are publically accountable, representative and legally binding. It is important to note that Loblaw's Brand, Joe Fresh, one of the brands produced at Rana Plaza before the collapse, is the only Canadian signatory to the Accord. For a complete list of brands that have signed the Accord visit http://www.bangladeshaccord.org/

Other than Loblaw's, most North American companies, including Wal Mart, have not signed onto the Accord. Instead they have created their own set of standards called The Alliance for Bangladesh Workers Safety.

Like the Accord the Alliance outlines improved Health and Safety measures and building standards, but unlike the Accord, fails to be accountable, is not legally binding and is not public. The Alliance does not allow for worker input into their Health and Safety Standards and committees which is an important aspect of Health and Safety in many countries including Canada.

Instead, The Alliance relies on 'trust us' measures and self-regulation, it is not accountable to the workers, unions or government. It is not surprising that many groups including the International Unions and the Canadian delegation have at every opportunity, highlighted the importance of Accord over the Alliance.

With the international spotlight shining on Bangladesh the Secretaries of Foreign Affairs, Labour and Commerce and the Minister of Commerce reported that the government has put into place new labour laws, making it easier for workers to associate and to form Trade Unions. These laws are very important, but enforcement is even more crucial.

Factory owners are still intimidating workers with firings, violence and in the worst cases, sexual violence. Before Rana Plaza, there were 36 registered trade unions and since the legislation change in the last year alone that number has risen to over 141. Unfortunately, factory owners are refusing to recognize the worker's rights to bargain collectively and there are few collective agreements.

The Minister of Commerce pleaded with the delegation to give Bangladesh time to sort out its problems as the Unions and factory owners are, in his words, "first generation." Our Trade Union delegation is confident that the growing strength of workers in Bangladesh will leave the government and factory owners (often the same individuals) no choice but to negotiate fair working conditions.

The Factory Owners, Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers Association (BGMEA), have come out strongly in favour of The Alliance over the Accord. They also, talk about 'first generation' labour pains and a need for signatories of The Accord and Alliance to work together. Of note, approximately 20 per cent of the Bangladeshi government ministers are BGMEA members.

The stories from the families and survivors of the Rana Plaza collapse was extremely emotional. Co-workers and family members died screaming beside one another, some for over four days, and the families who can still not find their loved ones mourn without any closure.

Many of the workers and their families can no longer work and that means making ends meet even harder. Parents cannot afford to send their kids to school (even public school has tuition fees) making their lives even tougher.

Compensation for the disaster was assessed at $40 million. To date The Rana Plaza Compensation Fund has raised approximately $16 million and $11 million (approx.) comes from only two companies, Loblaws and Primark. Companies like Wal Mart with annual revenues of approx. $367 billion have yet to come close to paying their fair share.

It is clear that the Garment Industry in Bangladesh is complex; workers depend on the garment industry to feed their families, and the Garment industry in Bangladesh accounts for 45 per cent of all industrial employment, but the need for Trade Unions becomes increasingly clear when you factor in that it accounts for only five per cent of the total national income.

A week in Bangladesh puts a human face to the clothes we wear and the tragedy of that fateful day a year ago. It is a shame that it takes a tragedy like Rana Plaza to make us realize that there is a high cost to our cheap fashion, that workers need legislation and a collective voice to keep them safe and to give them a decent way of life.

The Canadian delegation went to Bangladesh to stand in solidarity with workers, to hear their stories and now we must continue to shine the light on the working conditions of workers all over the world to ensure another tragedy like Rana Plaza never happens again.

Randy Kitt is the president of a Unifor media local and just got back from a fact finding visit to Bangladesh on the issue of garment factories.

All photos courtesy of Randy Kitt.

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