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By: Tarannum Kamlani
Who made that T-shirt you’re wearing? The one so stylish and cheap you had to have it in 5 different colours?
Until April 24, 2013 not many of us really thought about the hands that made that shirt, or where it was made.
On that day when the 8-story Rana Plaza came crashing down in Dhaka Bangladesh, the world became transfixed by the endless stream of bodies and the harrowing stories of survivors.
As the body count grew – eventually topping more than 1,100 -- so did the questions about how such a tragedy could happen and why companies behind the clothing brands we all love were connected to clothes being made in such dangerous conditions.
In Canada, the story hit close to the bone, when tags and clothing bearing the name “Joe Fresh”appeared in the rubble.
Fast Fashion -- the cheap, trendy clothing that changes every few weeks rather than once a season -- was suddenly under greater scrutiny than ever.
And so, in the weeks following the tragedy, the fifth estate set out on a mission: How did clothes from Loblaw’s Joe Fresh brand end up being made in Rana Plaza? And what did Canadian retailers really know about how their clothes were being made?
The Birth of A Shirt
The journey of any garment begins with its design, a concept that flows from a designer’s pen.
Speaking with a designer willing to talk openly about how their ideas came into being in Bangladeshi factories proved difficult -- but one designer decided to speak out.
Sujeet Sennik is a former designer with Walmart Canada. He started his career in haute couture in the early 1990s, with Christian Dior and Balenciaga in Paris, before eventually making it back home to Canada and his job with Walmart.
He soon began to feel the pressure of having to make his designs come alive faster and cheaper, and that meant getting them made in one of the cheapest places in the world to make clothes -- Bangladesh.
Bangladesh is now the second largest exporter of readymade garments in the world after China. In Canada, retailers began flocking to the country after Ottawa dropped import duties from Bangladesh back in 2003. The result? Imports from Bangladesh to Canada shot up by 618%.
Add to that the fact that the country has the lowest monthly minimum wage for garment workers at $38 a month, and it made Bangladesh irresistible to purveyors of fast fashion.
“I would say that there was a natural flow towards Bangladesh because of fast fashion in the last 10 years, and trying to get clothes cheaper and cheaper,” says Sennik.
Factories in Bangladesh had no option but to take the terms on the table, according to Sennik. “They can't say no to, to a hundred thousand units. That means a very long time that the factory is going to be sitting idle if they don't get that order.”
Sennik soon began to question what corners were being cut to make clothes at such low prices. His unease intensified in November 2012.
That’s when the Tazreen Fashions Factory caught on fire. It was a 9-storey building, though the owner only had a permit for 3 storeys. There were no fire escapes and many doors were blocked by boxes. Windows were barred shut. Months before the blaze the factory’s fire safety certificate had been revoked. Most of the 112 workers who died were burned alive.
Five months later, in April of this year, when Rana Plaza collapsed, Sennik says his nightmare had come true. He remembers being called into a meeting where he and others were informed that Walmart had used factories in that building in the past.
He was stunned at the response of those around him. “1000 people died, no one said a thing. They didn't, they didn't say anything about them, they just talked about their, the loss in terms of units, how are they going to make up their margins? --- so I sat there, and I said nothing, shame on me,” he says, still shaken by the memory.
Sennik decided he had had enough, and could no longer go to work in an industry that he says could have knowingly been putting so many lives at risk. So he made the life-changing decision to quit his job and see the truth for himself.
Sennik journeyed to Bangladesh with the fifth estate, determined to see for himself where his designs had come to life.
the fifth estate bought a shirt designed by Sennik from a Walmart store in the Toronto area and brought it to Bangladesh.
Who Really Made The Shirt?
To match clothes with the factories they came from, the fifth estate turned to a database of shipping records collected by a U.S. company called Import Genius, which collects shipping records and other data from US Customs. Through this database, we were able to track shipments from Bangladesh to Canada which passed through a US port.
The shipping records led the fifth estate to a factory in Dhaka called Hasan Tanvir Fashion Wears. After factory managers declined repeated requests to visit the factory, co-host Mark Kelley showed up at the factory, with the shipping records and the shirt designed by Sennik in hand. Factory managers came out of the gates to speak to the fifth estate but denied having anything to do with making the shirt.
Meeting The Workers
Faced with point blank denial from Hasan Tanvir’s managers, Kelley and former Walmart designer Sujeet Sennik decided to ask workers from the factory if they recognized the shirt.
So a meeting was arranged at one of the workers homes, after work. They asked the fifth estate not to identify them for fear of losing their jobs.
Sennik and co-host Mark Kelley met 9 workers from the Hasan Tanvir factory. The workers described it as a dangerous place to work, where their safety was a low priority.
When they were shown Sennik’s shirt, they immediately recognized it and even remembered which on floor of the multi-storey factory they believe it was made.
One worker held the shirt and told Sennik she had sewed the sleeve.
Her employer, Hasan Tanvir is a factory that Walmart put on its Unapproved Factories database last June. It’s a list of factories that have failed its audits. So why was Walmart using a factory it had deemed unsuitable to make its clothing nearly three months later in August when the fifth estate met with the workers?
When the fifth estate later asked Walmart for an explanation they told us that that Hasan Tanvir was indeed making shirts for them, just not our shirt. The factory was being allowed to complete one final order in an effort to transition production without causing undue disruption to it.
A Canadian Fast Fashion Icon Comes to Bangladesh
The rise of fast fashion is tied to what’s been dubbed the “race to the bottom” -- where the cheapest prices win. And some say the front runner in that race is Loblaw’s clothing brand, Joe Fresh. A critical hit on fashion week runways in Toronto, the brand soon bounced its way to one of the top spots in the children’s wear market in Canada.
Mimran seemed to have found a winning formula, telling the CBC in 2010 he was creating “fashion that would play across the country….at amazing price points”
When Mimran and Loblaw Chairman Galen Weston faced the media in the week following the collapse of Rana Plaza, both men appeared shaken by the tragedy but stressed their commitment to the highest standards in ethical sourcing.
Mimran told reporters, “I’ve been involved in ethical sourcing my entire career. It’s been over 25 years and I’ve been sourcing from all over Asia. And Joe Fresh apparel is where I along with all of my colleagues work every day to ensure that we have the highest standards of ethical sourcing”
Loblaw’s own shipping records indicate hundreds of thousands of garments were made at Rana Plaza, the site of the deadly collapse, and then sold in Canada after the tragedy.
With a hidden camera the fifth estate visited six Joe Fresh stores in Toronto three months after the collapse and found clothes for sale that had been made in Rana Plaza. Many sales associates either denied or were unaware that clothing from Rana Plaza was still being sold in their stores.
the fifth estate wanted to know just how deep that commitment was in the years that Loblaw made Joe Fresh apparel in Bangladesh before the building collapsed.
At the time of the collapse, a company named New Wave Style was making clothes for Joe Fresh. The owner, a man named Bazlus Samad Adnan surrendered to police in the days following the collapse. And while his fate garnered far less attention than that of Sohel Rana -- the owner of Rana Plaza who was caught trying to flee the country -- it became clear Adnan could provide some insight into Loblaw’s interactions with its suppliers.
the fifth estate petitioned the Bangladeshi government for permission to speak with Adnan. Permission was granted, but no cameras or recording equipment would be allowed in the interview.
In an exclusive interview, Bazlus Samad Adnan told the fifth estate’s Mark Kelley that he had been making clothes for Joe Fresh since 2007. Adnan said the company was his biggest client, bringing in about $6 million a year.
Adnan also said a ninth floor was under construction so he could do more work for his customers.
“Everybody is doing this. They all squeezed me. But Joe Fresh was a very good customer. Their policy was just ship it on time,” he told the fifth estate.
Are Audits Enough?
Adnan confirmed that Joe Fresh orders were usually placed through a third party, a buying house based in India called House of Pearl, now incorporated as Pearl Global Industries.
Problems in the supply chain often develop when retailers rely on third parties to get their clothes made. Orders are sometimes placed with factories that are not approved by retailers, something known as unauthorized subcontracting.
the fifth estate asked both Loblaw and House of Pearl about their relationships with New Wave style. Loblaw would not go into details about its dealings with New Wave Style except to say that its factories inside Rana Plaza had passed internationally recognized auditing procedures. In an email, a spokesperson from Loblaw added that “we, and our third party audit firms, visited our vendor factories located inside Rana Plaza.”
House of Pearl told the fifth estate that New Wave Style was added to its roster of supplier factories because it had passed internationally recognized audits. In an email, a spokesperson said the company “has strict requirements for technical and ethical standards from its suppliers and works closely with its international fashion retail clients to ensure that high standards are maintained throughout the supply chain, which includes audits”
For his part, Adnan could not name any Loblaw employee who came to visit his factories. He said that no one from either House of Pearl or Loblaw had visited or spoken with him since the collapse.
After Rana Plaza came down, companies like Loblaw and Walmart defended their business practices in Bangladesh, saying that the factories they chose to work with had to go through stringent auditing processes.
Until Rana Plaza came down, none of the industry’s standard auditing procedure included ensuring that factories were structurally sound. This despite dozens of factory fires and collapses and hundreds of worker deaths in the decade before Rana Plaza seized the world’s attention.
Kalpona Akter, executive director of the Bangladesh Centre for Worker Solidarity and the country’s most well known worker rights activist told the fifth estate’s Mark Kelley that no one in the industry appeared to care.
“The government, they really don’t do strong monitoring and the buyers who really have fake auditing system.... [they] really don’t care what is the real condition of these factories. So that really escalated [until] Rana Plaza [happened],” she says.
According to Barry Laxer, a Canadian who runs two factories in Bangladesh, all retailers want is to ensure that their clothing is made at the cheapest price possible. The brands’ reliance on third party inspectors allows them to distance themselves from the work being done on the ground.
“A lot of companies just want cheap manufacturing. So, they don’t really look,” he says. “Because if you don’t ask the questions, you don’t get the answers that you don’t want to hear.”
Perhaps it was this distance that left Loblaw unaware of the fact that the day before the Rana Plaza collapse, the building had been evacuated after cracks had been seen in the walls. the fifth estate asked Loblaw whether anyone in the company had been informed about this. They told us by email: “We learned about the evacuation from media reports in the days following the collapse.”
Another deadly fire six months after the Rana Plaza disaster that killed 10 workers showed the continuing problems with safety in Bangladesh garment factories that supply Canadian stores.
Shipping records obtained by the fifth estate indicated that Joe Fresh, received tens of thousands of cartons of clothing or fabric this year from the Aswad Composite Mills facility just outside the capital.
Loblaw first denied placing orders with this factory, but after CBC provided them with the records, Loblaw responded, “We have seen documents that suggest there may have been such unauthorized production and we are investigating.”
A Teenaged Survivor Speaks
the fifth estate wanted to know what life was like for someone who worked at Rana Plaza making clothes for Joe Fresh. The team tracked down a young girl named Aruti.
She says she is 17. But her grandmother says she is really 15. Kelley showed her a pair of Joe Fresh shorts bought in Canada. She told him she sewed pocket seams -- 150 of them an hour. Her days were gruelling; 12 hours a day, 7 days a week. And if there was a rush order, she had to put in overtime. She told Kelley that her employers pushed the workers hard, verbally abusing them if they weren’t working fast enough.
Aruti told the fifth estate she had been in the garment industry for 3 years, possibly making her just 12 when she first started. Although she had dreams of going to school and becoming a teacher or a doctor, poverty pushed her into a readily available job in the garment industry alongside her mother.
On the day of the collapse, Aruti was on the sixth floor. She and other workers had been evacuated from Rana Plaza the day before after cracks had been seen in the building. Her boss phoned her at home and told her to go in to work the next day or be fired.
When the building came down, Aruti told Kelley she did not think she would survive, pinned beneath two dead bodies for three days. She was eventually rescued, but lost her leg. Aruti survived. Her mother perished with 1,127 others.
Looking at the Joe Fresh shorts Kelley showed her, the 15-year-old was reminded of how her world changed on that day in April. “I feel sad. If I didn’t work in that factory… this wouldn’t have happened. So.. I feel very bad seeing these pants,” she says.
As for compensation from Loblaw… she says she still hoping.
Loblaw declined our requests for an interview. Instead they sent us an email saying they’ve contributed a million dollars to two charities, and joined a compliance accord with other retailers aimed at improving working conditions in Bangladesh. The company says it will now put “boots on the ground in the region” to inspect factories further.
The Man In Charge
After Rana Plaza collapsed, the Bangladeshi government scrambled to assure nervous Western retailers and their customers that Bangladesh was a safe place to do business.
But a brief tour of the capital Dhaka proved it was all too easy to find evidence even basic standards expected by most international retailers were being flouted. Mark Kelley walked into a jute factory using toxic dyes -- where none of the workers or the children they had to bring to work with them -- were wearing masks.
Another factory dumping toxic multi-coloured waste into a river. Using a hidden camera the fifth estate saw another factory employing children aged 10 and under operating textile looms.
the fifth estate arranged an interview with Atiqul Islam, president of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association, the garment industry’s self regulating body -- the man Canadian retailers deal with. He is a prominent factory owner in his own right. He’s made clothes for Walmart Canada, Loblaw and HBC.
En route to the interview, Kelley encountered hundreds of protesting garment workers staging a demonstration outside the headquarters of the BGMEA. They told him they had been beaten by thugs employed by their factory owner simply for demanding a month’s work of wages.
When Kelley asked for his thoughts about the protest, Islam said abused workers should just quit and find work elsewhere.
“This is completely open industry. If you don’t like there you can go the other work there. We have a 25% worker shortage in the industry, still today,” he says.
When asked about the child labour, pollution and dangerous working conditions, Islam insisted the industry was changing for the better.
Kelley then asked the persistent problem of illegal subcontracting; when a factory gives one of their orders to another factory without the retailer’s permission. Kelley showed Islam the shirt designed by former Walmart designer Sujeet Sennik.
Walmart confirmed to the fifth estate they gave Islam the order to make Sennik’s shirt, but at his own factory, not Hasan Tanvir. But the workers at Hasan Tanvir told Mark Kelley they made the shirt.
Islam said that clothes he was contracted to make were always made in his factories. But once the interview was wrapped up, he took the shirt and walked to his desk for closer examination. the fifth estate’s cameras captured him doing something with a pen behind his desk.
Later, the team discovered that the tag on the shirt had been tampered with. The Canadian Import number and barcode which could connect his company to the shirt had been blacked out. When asked about it the following day, Islam denied doing anything to the shirt.
A Monument To Greed
Before he left Bangladesh, the fifth estate took former Walmart designer Sujeet Sennik to see what remains of Rana Plaza.
Gazing down at the rubble, now covered with water, Sennik was astonished at the disconnect between what he was seeing and knowing that people back home were walking around wearing clothes that were made in such deadly conditions.
“This is a monument to greed,” he said. “This has got to be the bottom. It shouldn’t go lower than this. People know about this now. It can’t continue like this.”