Dangerous working conditions remain widespread in the Bangladesh garment industry, an investigation by the CBC’s fifth estate has found. The industry continues to supply major retailers in Canada such as Loblaw and Wal-Mart, despite commitments by the companies to make improvements.
Those promises were made after more than 1,100 garment workers were killed in the collapse of the Rana Plaza building last April.
Loblaw’s own shipping records reveal hundreds of thousands of garments were made at the site before 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 made in Rana Plaza were still being sold.
Mark Kelley of the fifth estate also spoke to the now-jailed owner of the biggest factory in Rana Plaza.
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In an exclusive interview with Kelley, Bazlus Samad Adnan said he had been making clothes for Joe Fresh since 2007, adding that at $6 million annually, the company was his biggest client.
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.
'Go in or get fired'
The program also tracked down a young survivor of the collapse of Rana Plaza, 15-year-old Aruti, who made clothes for Joe Fresh.
Aruti was trapped in the rubble for three days, pinned under two dead bodies; she eventually lost her leg. Her mother, who also worked at Rana Plaza, was killed.
Aruti recognized Joe Fresh shorts Kelley had brought from Canada, saying her job was to sew pocket seams on them. She said she would turn out about 150 garments an hour during a 12-hour shift, seven days a week.
Aruti told Kelley that the day after workers had walked off the job because of cracks in the building, they were forced to choose between going in or getting fired.
“There were many of us who didn’t want to go but they forced us,” she said. “They said, 'Don’t worry, nothing will happen. If you die we’ll die too.” But they didn’t go inside. They made us start work and then left.”
After Rana Plaza collapsed, Loblaw chairman Galen Weston told a media conference, “I'm troubled that despite a clear commitment to the highest standards of ethical sourcing, our company can still be a part of such unspeakable tragedy."
In September Julija Hunter, Loblaw's vice president of public relations, wrote to the fifth estate that they had completed audits of their 40 vendor factories in Bangladesh, removing seven of them from their approved list.
Although the company declined interview requests from the fifth estate, Hunter wrote the company is "working diligently on a comprehensive relief program." Loblaw has also committed $1 million toward two charities in Bangladesh.
The company says it will now put “boots on the ground” somewhere “in the region” to inspect factories.
Wal-Mart bans factory but still buys its clothes
The investigation also found that another major Canadian retailer, Wal-Mart, was still getting clothes from a factory that they had found did not meet their standards.
Made in Bangladesh
The fifth estate's documentary airs again on CBC TV Sunday, Oct. 13 at 11:30 p.m. (midnight in NL) and on CBC News Network at 7 p.m. ET Oct. 13 and 4:00 a.m. ET on Oct. 14
Of course, you can also view the documentary at the top of this page.
Wal-Mart publishes a list of factories in Bangladesh that have failed the company’s audits.
Kelley spoke with nine workers from one factory on that list, Hasan Tanvir Fashion Wears, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of losing their jobs. They told him they were still making clothes for Wal-Mart, and one woman said she recognized a shirt he brought from a Wal-Mart store in Canada.
After surviving a recent fire in their factory, the workers said they feared for their lives.
“They never want to let us out. They just want to turn off the lights and keep us in there and say ‘Sit down, shut up and work,’” one woman told Kelley.
Wal-Mart told the fifth estate they put the Hasan Tanvir factory on their non-authorized list last June. Three months after blacklisting the factory, Wal-Mart said they are finishing up one last order to avoid unduly penalizing workers by cancelling pre-existing orders.
A deadly fire earlier this week shows the continuing problems with safety in Bangladesh garment factories that supply Canadian stores.
Shipping records obtained by the fifth estate indicated Joe Fresh received more than 8,000 cartons of clothing or fabric in May alone from Aswad Composite Mills, just outside Dhaka.
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.”
Hudson’s Bay Company’s last order was placed with Aswad Composite Mills in October 2012, for final delivery in April 2013.
Wal-Mart told the fifth estate that some of its suppliers buy fabric from this factory, although it could not confirm whether fabric in the factory at the time of the fire was destined for the retailer's clothes. However, workers from the factory interviewed at the scene by the Worker Rights Consortium (WRC), a labour rights group, say they were working on orders for Wal-Mart’s George label, which is sold in Canada and the U.K.
Aswad not covered by agreements
Since the collapse of Rana Plaza, more than 110 companies that buy garments manufactured in Bangladesh have signed up with one of two international agreements to improve safety and working conditions.
Factory inspections required by the agreements have not started and in any case, the agreements will cover fewer than half the country's garment factories.
However, the Aswad facility, the scene of the fire on Tuesday, would not have been covered by either agreement, even though its textiles end up in the clothing of some of the world's largest retailers.
That's because the mill does not deal directly with international brands.
This story originally reported that, "Wal-Mart told the fifth estate it could not verify whether fabric produced in this building ever made it into their clothing." After the story was published, Wal-Mart clarified that it knew its suppliers sourced from this factory, but that it couldn't confirm whether any fabric in the factory at the time of the fire was destined for Wal-Mart.Oct 11, 2013 9:45 AM ET