Canadian retailer Joe Fresh has been maintaining its business in Bangladesh throughout the year following the deadly collapse of the garment factory building where some of its clothes were made, CBC’s the fifth estate has learned.

In an email Friday, a spokesperson for the retailer's parent, Loblaw Co., said that the clothing line "purchased approximately the same amount this past year as we did the year prior to the Rana Plaza collapse."

The eight-storey Rana Plaza collapsed last April killing 1,135 Bangladeshi garment workers and injuring 2,500 more. Some of those workers were making clothes for Joe Fresh, and its brand-name pants were found in the rubble.

Earlier, a senior Bangladeshi official told the fifth estate’s Mark Kelley that Loblaw had told him production in his country had doubled since the disaster.

Mark Kelley’s follow-up story on Bangladesh is part of the fifth estate’s documentary "After the Cameras Went Away." It airs Friday at 9:00 pm on CBC-TV, 9:30 in Newfoundland.

But Loblaw, which had initially refused to discuss its sourcing volumes, says that is not the case.

The company also said that it does not anticipate reducing business in Bangladesh.

"We continue to believe that the economy and manufacturing communities of Bangladesh benefit from our presence, attention and long-term commitment," a Loblaw representative stated.

This year, Loblaw Co. also announced it is planning to open more than 100 new Joe Fresh stores around the globe.

Labour activist groups say that brands like Loblaw should not stop sourcing from Bangladesh, but do have a responsibility to improve working conditions in factories there. 

Questions about compensation

After Rana Plaza collapsed, Loblaw chairman Galen Weston promised to be a “force for good” in Bangladesh.

Since then, Loblaw has become the only Canadian company to sign a legally-binding international accord that ensures fire safety and structural inspections will be done on all the factories that it uses. 

Loblaw has also said it would provide long-term compensation to the victims and their families of the Rana Plaza collapse.

Bob Jeffcott, a labour rights activist with the Maquila Solidarity Network, says that Loblaw has made some short term fixes in Bangladesh, and that their overall business model is still about making clothing cheaply and quickly.

Bob Jeffcot

Labour activist Bob Jeffcot says Loblaw should be congratulated for being among the first to sign the international safety accord, but the company should also be closely watched as well to make sure it follows through. (CBC)

​ “I think what they have done is positive, but … everybody needs to sign the accord.

"They were at the table early on for negotiation of this trust fund. So they participated from the beginning on that,” he told Kelley. “Whether this is fundamentally changed how they do business or not is yet to be seen.”

As part of its compensation package following the collapse, Loblaw paid three months wages to survivors who were making Joe Fresh clothes, about $150 per worker.  

It also recently donated $3 million to a compensation trust fund to help injured workers and the families of deceased workers.

And the company told the fifth estate it contributed $1 million to two organizations working to help survivors, Save the Children Bangladesh and the Centre for Rehabilitation of the Paralyzed.

The fifth estate has learned that Loblaw has recently hired one person to oversee its growing operations in Bangladesh. Last year, it had no one on the ground in Bangladesh to monitor its operations there or inspect the factories it uses.

Survivor recounts collapse

Aruti Das was working on the sixth floor of Rana Plaza making shorts for Joe Fresh when the building collapsed.

For three days, the teenager was trapped in the rubble, pinned under two dead bodies.

Aruti Das

Sixteen-year-old Aruti Das lost her mother and a leg after she was trapped in the rubble of the Rana Plaza collapse for three days one year ago. She is now the main provider for her three younger siblings. (CBC)

She eventually lost her leg while her mother, who worked with her in Rana Plaza, died in the collapse.  

Six months after first meeting Das, the fifth estate went back to find out how she is doing.  

She has tried to rebuild her life by going back to school. But she wasn’t able to continue, and at the age of 16 she is trying to fill her mother’s role.

“It is now my responsibility to support my three little brothers and sisters,” she says. “I don’t even want to live anymore.

“But I have to stay strong because of them. I have no one else besides them.”

Das’ family did receive some compensation from the Bangladeshi government. For the loss of her mother, they were paid about $3,000. For her lost limb, people like her are paid between $14,000 and $21,000.

She still wants answers from the companies who hired her and thousands of other garment workers whose lives were shattered in Rana Plaza.

“Why did they put us in that building? They should not have given that order,” she told Kelley. “If they hadn’t, many more people would be alive today.”

Clarifications

  • The headline on an earlier version of this story said: "Joe Fresh 'doubles' garment business in Bangladesh in year after tragedy." It was changed to reflect new information.
    Apr 11, 2014 4:25 PM ET