Canadian consumers 'can do a lot' to prevent sweatshop tragedies: McMaster business prof

CBC Hamilton spoke with McMaster business prof Ashish Pujari about the deadly building collapse at a garment factory complex in Bangladesh, a facility that made clothing for Canadian retailer Joe Fresh among others.

Bangladesh factory collapse a 'wakeup call' for Western retailers, the general public, he says

More than 400 people are dead and nearly 150 are still missing after a building in Bangladesh housing several garment factories collapsed in late April. The facility, part of the country's $20-billion-a-year garment industry, supplied well-known Western retailers including Joe Fresh, a discount brand available at Loblaw's-owned groceries stores.

Related: 149 still missing in deadly Bangladesh building collapse

Ashish Pujari, a business professor at McMaster University who researches corporate social responsibility, said he is "optimistic" the incident will put pressure on big companies to ensure their suppliers treat employees fairly. He spoke with CBC Hamilton about how the tragedy has reignited global concern about sweatshops, the effect it has had on companies like Joe Fresh and what Canadian consumers can do to improve working conditions for labourers in developing countries.

There have been big pushes against sweatshop labour before. How has the recent factory collapse changed the discussion?

I think it has given a big blow to our somehow false sense of security that "everything has been taken care of." I remember 20 years ago when I used to talk to companies and they'd say, "Yeah, we talk to our suppliers and we get our questionnaires done, but we don't know much after that and who their subcontractors are."

Ashish Pujari is an associate professor of marketing with McMaster University's DeGroote School of Business. (Supplied)

Twenty years onwards, it is clear that the situation has not changed that much. The main problem and challenge for global sustainability is that companies just do not know the multiple tiers of suppliers in their supply chain. So this is a big blow, and I think it's a wakeup call for things to change.

What can the average consumer do to change conditions for textile workers in the developing world?

Customers can do a lot. Obviously, some customers would like to boycott some of the firms. I don't believe, personally, in that front. But certainly they, along with NGOs, can put a lot of pressure on companies and say things have to change before they can trust a brand. Even though we have become addicted to cheap clothes, I don't know any customer who'd like to buy cheap clothes when they know that conditions in Bangladesh are growing poorer.

What can companies like Joe Fresh do to ensure its suppliers provide safe working conditions?

I think they have to collaborate. They cannot be there full-time. They have to collaborate with some NGOs who are trustworthy and see what sort of plan they can put in place so they have updated information all the time or have early warning systems in place so they know what is going on at the workplace. If they do not get this sort of information from any kind of independent source, it is very difficult for them to sit here and think that everything is going well.

Also, they need train, educate and engage with their suppliers and make sure that the suppliers are educating their employees on how to deal with these kinds of hazards if they see something.

The collapse has also been a public relations disaster for Joe Fresh. What should the company do to repair its image?

They did make some mistakes. First off, they said that they got very few things from this plant. That just downplays the loss of life, even though they said they were really sad about it. And then they waited another day to decide whether they'd send a group of people. That should have happened immediately.

So now, they will have to rebuild that kind of trust. Whatever they do now, they will have people questioning, "Is this really authentic?" or "Are they just doing this because of pressure from the public?"

Related: Joe Fresh vows to be 'force for good' in Bangladesh

But at the same time, I look at the numbers and see that 80 per cent of the workers in the clothing industry in Bangladesh are women. If the company makes changes, it could turn into a good story of "You know? We are providing employment to women. Women can be empowered and they're getting good working conditions." The company could start working from there to build that kind of positive social impact in Bangladesh. In turn, that could lead to a better public image in Canada.

With files from The Associated Press