As Douglas Stanley sits in the King Street Second Cup in Saint John, he wears a deep-blue, wool sweater.

He admits he doesn't know where it's made — but it's the kind of detail the retired lawyer has been noticing ever since he began working with the United Nations this time last year.

Stanley is one of six people worldwide contracted to come up with legislation that would improve the ready-made garment industry in Bangladesh for the people who work in it.

The specific goal is a sustainable workers compensation system for an industry where workers have laboured in unsafe conditions and experienced great tragedy.

During one of his four trips to the developing country over the last year, Stanley was brought to a garment factory in Dhaka.

"It's not a place you'd want to spend a lot of time," he said of the capital city.

Disastrous collapse

It was just outside Dhaka in 2013 that Bangladesh suffered one of its worst disasters, the collapse of an eight-storey building at Rana Plaza, where clothing was made for Joe Fresh, Benetton and other brands sold in North America and Europe.

The collapse killed 1,129 people and injured 2,500.

"It simply collapsed and a fire started," Stanley said.

While emergency crews dug through the rubble to find survivors, the massive and sudden loss of life shone a spotlight on the industry and the outside companies using the country's cheap labour.

Improvements underway

Although Stanley found Dhaka a "grim" city, relative to the quality of life Canadians know, he was was surprised by what he saw at the garment factory he toured this year.

"I understand they're not going to bring us to the worst of the factories," he said. 

"It was remarkable, though, that they are making a substantial capital investment in the buildings to basically satisfy external stakeholders, to meet international standards."

Despite the poverty, overcrowding, pollution and poor drainage in Dhaka, the working conditions in this factory were similar, he said, to those at J.M.L. Shirts, which he visited in Edmundston 30 years ago.

Push for fair system

Bangladesh has 163 million people — with five million of them working in the ready-made garment industry. Canada imported more than $1.5 billion of textile products from Bangladesh in 2016 alone.

'The law in Bangladesh, at that time, in terms of compensation for injured workers and deceased workers, was fairly elementary.' - Douglas Stanley

Although change is happening in the country Stanley was asked by the International Labour Organization, a UN agency, to try to bring about more.

"They've had quite a bit of incentive to establish a workers compensation system," he said.

 

Bangladesh

Stanley is a Saint John lawyer who saw firsthand remedial foundation work being done by the owners of a five-storey garment factory in Bangladesh to bring it up to standard. (Submitted by Douglas Stanley)

Temporary system put in place

Following the Rana Plaza disaster, the Bangladesh government implemented an ad hoc system to provide medical care and compensation to the injured workers and the dependents of those who died.

"There was a lot of pressure from these retailers," Stanley said. "The law in Bangladesh, at that time, in terms of compensation for injured workers and deceased workers, was fairly elementary."

And the system wasn't made to last.

This is where Stanley, the only lawyer on the UN team who isn't from Bangladesh, comes in.

"It's to design a legal framework for an employment injury insurance scheme … similar to what we have in our North American jurisdiction," he said.

Stanley, chosen because of his work with the workers compensation system in Canada, said the hope is to create a durable system that works for all those making clothing cheaply, not just for the victims of a single disaster.

The ready-made garment industry is the intended target, but there's a desire to expand the reach of the proposed legislation, perhaps to the leather and agriculture industries.

A hopeful future

Bob Jeffcott, policy analyst for the Toronto-based labour rights organization Maquila Solidarity Network, said the work could change the lives of millions of people.

"That is something all of us in the labour rights movement have been hoping for," he said. "It would be a very positive development if it comes to be."

Loblaw, the Canadian food giant that also sells the Joe Fresh brand, still sources clothes from Bangladesh but publishes the names of factories it uses.  

It was one of 200 companies that signed the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, a legally binding document between brands and trade unions designed to work towards a safer industry.

Bangladesh factory collapse garment Rana Plaza

A woman is lifted out of the rubble of the Rana Plaza factory collapse in Dhaka that killed 1,129 people in 2013. Clothes bound for Canada were made in the factory. (Kevin Frayer/Associated Press)

"In that sense, companies have stepped up to the plate," Jeffcott said. "It took an enormous amount of effort to get them to do so."

But back to Stanley's sweater. It's important people are aware of where consumer products come from and what the situation is with respect to the workers there, he said.

"I wouldn't be the least surprised if the shirt you're wearing is manufactured in Bangladesh."

And when injuries occur on the job, Stanley expects things will be better someday for workers in Bangladesh.

"I'm very optimistic," he said. "I don't think it's unreasonable to say in the next couple years Bangladesh will have, at least the beginnings of, a sustainable workers compensation system."