Bangladesh retail pact prompts hope for real change

A handful of some of the world's largest retailers signing binding commitments about their supply chains in Bangladesh has many watchers hopeful the country will finally see real change in its growing garment industry.

Major clothiers pledge to monitor work conditions after garment factory collapse

Experts say major retailers pushing for real change in Bangladeshi garment factories is an encouraging sign. (Andrew Biraj/Reuters)

A handful of some of the world's largest retailers signing binding commitments about their supply chains in Bangladesh has many watchers hopeful the country will finally see real change in its growing garment industry.

On Tuesday, Loblaw Companies Limited, which owns the Joe Fresh brand of affordable clothing, became the latest company to put its name to a five-year pact that requires retailers that use Bangladeshi garment factories to make their products to conduct safety inspections, be more transparent about work conditions and promise to pay for regular factory repairs and maintenance.

Loblaw joins other major apparel companies, including H&M, Primark, Inditex, owner of the Zara brand, Tesco and C&A, who announced their co-operation on Monday.

Designers such as Tommy Hilfiger and Calvin Klein have also joined the movement, which is being spearheaded by international labour lobby group IndustriALL Global Union.

The move is a reaction to the tragedy earlier this month where more than 1,000 workers at a factory in Bangladesh died when the building collapsed.

'Everybody has to lead'—York University professor Ananya Mukherjee-Reed

Primark and Canadian chain Joe Fresh , each of which are controlled by the Weston family, are two of a small number of retailers that have publicly come out and acknowledged that their garments were being made in the facility.

Reaction in the Western world has been swift, with petitions signed, boycotts promised and calls for change. But observers say responses like that often come in the wake of tragedies, but only in rare cases do they lead to genuine change down the line.

A factory fire in Bangladesh as recently as last November killed more than 100 workers. There, too, change was promised, but little was done in terms of real progress.

York University professor Ananya Mukherjee-Reed is optimistic, however, that this time real changes might be in the offing. That's because the presence of major influential retailers is an encouraging sign, she says.

"It's a very good development to ensure this is actually put into place and is monitored in a way that is real," she said in an interview with CBC News.

Mukherjee-Reed says focus on Bangladesh has been strong enough and sustained enough this time to see it through. But consumers aren't completely absolved of responsibility, she says.

"Everybody has to lead," she says. "Everybody who has an interest, and that is all of us."

Other retailers and manufacturers — most notably Disney — have responded by pulling out of the country entirely. But some say that option isn't ideal, as it would simply keep unscrupulous factory owners outside the gaze of the international business community. There are also fears that any such widespread move would lead to job losses.

"Any work is better than no work," says Syed Sultan Uddin Ahmmed of the Bangladesh Institute of Labour Studies "[But] I think we should shift from that."

"Decent work is the right of the citizens, all the citizens." he said.

Canadian grocer Loblaw, which owns Joe Fresh, said in a statement last month it is committed to working with manufacturers in the country to effect change. On Monday, H&M echoed the sentiment that more can be achieved by staying in the country than pulling out.

"Our strong presence in Bangladesh gives us the opportunity to contribute to the improvement of the lives of hundreds of thousands of people and contribute to the community's development," H&M spokeswoman Helena Hermersson said in a statement.

Higher pay

"This agreement is exactly what is needed to finally bring an end to the epidemic of fire and building disasters that have taken so many lives in the garment industry in Bangladesh," said Scott Nova, executive director of the Worker Rights Consortium, a worker rights group that had been one of the organizations pushing for the agreement.

It's a common belief that the simple act of paying workers more could go a long way towards easing the pain of vulnerable workers in the developing world. But the reality is not so simple, Mukherjee-Reed says.

The wages paid to workers in garment factories sometimes make up only one per cent of the price tag of an item of clothing, so there's capacity to raise wages without onerous price increases. But without a commitment to monitor conditions on the ground, there's no guarantee that any price hike would play out in higher wages or better conditions for workers themselves.

"We need to work with them and see in what way we can support those struggles," she said. 

"Consumers should remain not only consumers but become active citizens."