Our fair city is more than 11,000 kilometres from poor, benighted Bangladesh. But Monday, the teeming flood plain came to the doorstep of The Bay in the heart of downtown Vancouver, through the glass doors and up the escalator to the second floor.
There, close to a hundred union protesters gathered in front of the store’s swank, high-priced merchandise, serenading shoppers, mannequins and suddenly-invisible Bay managers with chants of “Shame” and “Sign the Accord”.
Their ire was directed at far-away Bangladesh, and Western retail chains like The Bay, who peddle clothing items produced by impoverished, poorly-paid, Bangladeshi textile workers toiling in grim, frequently dangerous factories.
The Accord protesters demanded that The Bay sign is far from a radical document. It merely commits signatories to ensure enforcement of a safe working environment for employees who work in those notorious sweatshops on our shopping behalf.
The situation has taken on pressing urgency since the calamitous collapse earlier this year of the eight-story Rana Plaza building, which killed more than 1,100 textile workers. Many had wanted to stay away that day, after noticing ominous cracks in the walls. However, they were threatened with being fired or losing pay by unscrupulous bosses, who assured them the building was safe. At least one Canadian retailer was among those with contracts for garments from workplaces in the Rana Plaza.
Since then, more than a hundred retailers across Europe and North America have signed the legally-binding Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh. On behalf of its Joe Fresh clothing line, Loblaws has signed. The Bay hasn’t. Instead, The Bay, along with Walmart, Canadian Tire and others, have opted for a lesser safety agreement that does not provide for independent, on-site, factory inspections.
In the midst of demonstrators at The Bay was 36-year old Kalpona Akter. She became a textile worker at the age of 12, was fired four years later for trying to organize a union, and today heads the Bangladesh Centre for Worker Solidarity, based in Dhaka.
With a thick, black, woolen scarf wrapped around her neck to fend off Vancouver’s un-Asian chill, Akter reminded protesters of the Rana Plaza tragedy, with many brandishing signs depicting distressing photos of the dead. “This was industrial murder,” she declared. “And why? Because greedy corporations are not interested in seeing happy worker faces. They want to see happy profit sheets.”
The post-collapse reaction of most Canadian retailers doing business in Bangladesh has not been encouraging. While there is now grudging recognition something needs to be done about the miserable working conditions that provide our fancy duds, the general corporate response has been to do as little as one can publicly get away with.
Lets face it. Competition in the retail trade is fierce. The cheaper one can get products from desperate countries like Bangladesh, the better. For millions of mindless, brand-obsessed shoppers, price is key. Who cares what it takes to land those snazzy clothes on store hangers? How many Black Friday shoppers will give it a moment’s thought? Retailers may well think: we can’t afford to have a conscience. Why should we sign the Accord, if my competitor isn’t signing?
But surely, some executives somewhere must also be capable of thinking: if the cost of doing business involves the kind of textile-production atrocities we see in Bangladesh, is that production we want to be part of? Surveys have shown Canadians are willing to pay more for garments produced by workers with rights in a safe environment. Yes, easy to answer a poll question, but it’s hard to imagine consumers not responding to a solid advertising campaign extolling a retail chain’s social responsibility.
It’s certainly fair to argue, as Akter did on Monday, that the 1,129 workers who perished at Rana Plaza would be alive today, if the Accord had been in place at their factories. “Those were human beings who died, and the goods they were working on were made for us,” fired-up B.C. Federation of Labour president Jim Sinclair reminded the protest rally. “Do Canadians and consumers want their blood on their clothes? I don’t think so.”
For the moment, there are no calls for a boycott of The Bay. Rather, Canadians are being urged to put their names to a petition urging the company to sign the Accord. Seems like the least people can do. They can also send personal messages to Bay biggies, telling them to do the right thing.
A shining example is right before them. H&M, the Swedish-based second-largest clothing retailer in the world, pledged this week to guarantee workers producing its garments at factories in Bangladesh and Cambodia are paid “a living wage”. If H&M, why not others?
As she talked to the media on The Bay’s glitzy second floor, Kalpona Akter noticed she was standing in front of a blouse priced at $350. “It would take a worker back in Bangladesh six months to earn that much money. It’s shocking,” Akter said.