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3 Feb 2024

Timothy Sawa, Mark Kelley, Lisa Ellenwood & Abdullah Al Imran, CBC News

Bangladesh: Ten years after Rana Plaza collapse, Loblaw failing to meet promises on factory safety & wages in garment factories, report finds

"Made in Bangladesh", 3 February 2024

After the collapse of a factory in Bangladesh that made Joe Fresh clothing killed 1,134 workers a decade ago, its Canadian parent company promised safe factories and fair wages. Ten years later, an investigation by The Fifth Estate raises questions of whether Loblaw has delivered on that promise...

[Lazina] Akter moved 300 kilometres from her family village to earn about $150 a month making pants for Joe Fresh, the Canadian fast fashion giant owned by Loblaw...

Akter’s dreams, however...remain out of reach.

That’s despite big promises made by Canadian companies like Joe Fresh after the collapse of a massive garment factory in Bangladesh a decade ago that killed more than 1,100 workers and injured another 2,500.

Today, Akter lives in one of those 10-by-10 concrete rooms. Bars cover her small window and thin blankets cover the hard floor in the corner, where she sleeps with a roommate...

It is one of thousands of buildings like it in Savar, a garment-making district north of Bangladesh’s capital city Dhaka. It’s home to 400 garment factories and 500,000 garment workers, working 60 to 70 hours per week earning a wage so small that many find it difficult to adequately feed themselves and their families...

“...you can carry the message to [Joe Fresh] that they should pay more money for their product, with the consideration that we can get more wages. It’s an honest request for them to consider.”

After the Rana Plaza collapsed in 2013, the world’s attention was suddenly focused on the poor and often dangerous working conditions for millions of garment workers in Bangladesh, forcing international brands who used the factory to respond.

Loblaw-owned Joe Fresh was one of the customers at the factory...

Since the accident, Loblaw has made a series of commitments, including manufacturing clothing only in factories that meet all local safety codes as well as paying “long term” compensation for victims of the collapse and paying “fair wages” for all workers in its supply chain.

However, an investigation by CBC’s The Fifth Estate that involved travelling to Bangladesh to speak to workers and advocates, reviewing hundreds of pages of court documents and safety inspection records and conducting dozens of interviews with safety experts, unions and NGOs that work in Bangladesh, reveals why many say Loblaw has fallen short on its promises.

Loblaw denies that is the case.

“As a company, we have supported the survivors, their families and the families of those who did not survive the tragedy at Rana Plaza, through relief and compensation, as well as improved standards for the garment industry in Bangladesh,” the company said in a recent statement to The Fifth Estate...

But many who work and live in Bangladesh say the Western company, and others like it, have done very little to improve the lives of workers, stranding them in a life of poverty in order to crank out cheap clothes for their customers.

“I don’t think [the international brands working in Bangladesh] are really committed to anything,” said Shushmita Preetha, a local opinion columnist, editor and activist who routinely takes on powerful interests in the country.

“They talk about commitment to workers rights only as a PR strategy because they don’t want their woke consumers to have to deal with the guilt of buying from sweatshops in Bangladesh.”...

Shumi Akter says she can’t work in the Bangladesh garment factories anymore. She’s too slow with her prosthetic leg. The 28-year-old mother lost her lower right leg in the Rana Plaza collapse. She was 17 years old at the time and making shorts for Joe Fresh. Her mother, who also worked in the complex, was killed that day...

In the months after the tragedy, the Rana Plaza Arrangement Fund was created by the brands that worked in the factory to compensate the victims. Loblaw was the largest donor, contributing more than $5 million.

At the time, the company issued a statement, promising “long-term, direct financial compensation for the victims and their families.”

Did that happen?

According to our investigation, the answer: sort of.

In Shumi Akter’s case, she gets around $100 a month from the Bangladeshi government to help with lost wages. She confirms she also got an initial payment of about $12,000 after the tragedy.

But she also needs to replace her prosthetic leg at an annual cost of nearly $1,200. Now bearing that cost on her own, she believes Loblaw has failed to deliver on the “long term” funding it promised.

“I want to say to the Canadian audience who are wearing our clothes, we lost our leg or our hand or even our life to make their clothes. And they don’t care. They don’t even feel anything for us,” she said...

Brad Loewen had been hired by an international safety group tasked with cleaning up dangerous factories in the developing country, following the deadly collapse of Rana Plaza...

Once on the ground, his teams discovered at least 50 factories that needed to be evacuated immediately because they were also on the verge of collapsing. Hundreds more had urgent fire safety issues...

Loewen was the new chief safety inspector for what was called the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh...Loblaw was one of the first companies, and the only major Canadian company, to sign the agreement. Other Canadian companies chose to sign their own voluntary initiatives.

Despite initial pushback from the brands, which were surprised Loewen had the power to evacuate a factory, even if they were expecting an order, work-related deaths were dramatically reduced.

In the decade following the factory collapse, fewer than 75 garment workers have died on the job in Bangladesh...

But at least one group wasn’t happy. The country’s factory owners were not given any say over how the accord operated and eventually grew tired of being told what to do.

In 2018, Smart Jeans Ltd. took the accord to court in Bangladesh. The company had been accused of falsifying structural safety records at their factory. It wanted the accord out of its business. In the end, the judge ordered the safety group out of the country...

Loewen’s work came to an abrupt halt. A new group was to be created, one that gave the country’s powerful factory owners authority over how it operates...

“The garment industry [in Bangladesh] has changed over the last 10 years significantly,” said Abdul Haque, who runs the RSC, a new locally based safety inspection group that replaced the accord. Factory owners now sit on the board for the group.

“They were not liking the policing approach [of the accord] anymore,” he said.

In 2013, Loblaw promised it would no longer do business with a factory that doesn’t respect “all local construction and building codes.”

With the accord now banished from the country, how has Loblaw delivered on that promise?

The Fifth Estate analyzed the safety records for 21 factories used by Loblaw between 2019 and 2023. During that time, inspectors noted a total of 176 building violations, including a missing sprinkler system in one factory and an “antiquated” fire alarm system in another.

At a factory currently used by Loblaw, Meditex Industries, inspectors noted 31 fire-related violations between 2014 and 2023.

Those issues included a failure to test and maintain the fire alarm system, locked emergency exit doors and emergency exit stairs that empty inside the building instead of safely outside.

Loewen, who reviewed the safety reports, said many of the issues identified by inspectors are “critical to life safety.”...

Loblaw, however, maintains that its seven employees who live and work in Bangladesh regularly audit all of the factories it uses, ensuring that its “partners uphold our supplier code of conduct.”

“To be clear, while Joe Fresh is not the sole or the largest brand at any one of the factories, we ensure each one lives up to our high standards,” the company said in a statement.

The Fifth Estate asked Loblaw if it could visit Meditex Industries.

The company responded saying it could not grant access because it does not own the factory. When we asked for an introduction to the owner, they declined.

“Unfortunately, we are unable to make an introduction at this time.”

So our production team showed up at the factory and asked for a tour. We were met by a factory manager who said all of the fire safety issues had been “approved” but he said nobody would be allowed inside to see without an appointment.

According to the public safety reports, three fire safety issues at the factory are still “pending verification,” including the emergency stairs that exit inside the factory instead of out...

promising on its website “fair wages” and “the right to an adequate standard of living” for all workers in its supply chains.

But does it deliver that?

According to a 2021 report, authored by Sushmita on behalf of the Steelworkers Humanity Fund, a Canadian charity, the answer is no.

Preetha spoke to 35 workers who were employed at nine different factories and were making clothing for Canadian brands, including Joe Fresh.

All the workers reported struggling to make ends meet, including barely affording enough food to feed their families...

“It’s really tough to survive with this minimum wage. With the budget situation, the inflation rate is too high. So in this situation it is really hard to survive with this salary.”...

On Nov. 7, 2023, the government-appointed panel raised the minimum wage to its current level of approximately $150 per month. It’s half of what workers and labour unions were asking for, but the exact amount the powerful factory owners proposed...

In the five years that followed the collapse of Rana Plaza, research shows that the average price paid by international brands to factories in Bangladesh to produce their clothing declined by 13 per cent. While the cost of everything else was going up, brands were paying less and less. According to a 2018 study by Penn State researcher Mark Anner, this drop is due solely to what he calls “brand price squeezing.”

It’s the one issue where workers and factory owners agree: brands should be paying more for clothes made in Bangladesh.

“They are not doing fair pricing or ethical sourcing,” said BGMEA president Faruque.

“They believe that they can get more cheaper prices from Bangladesh. And that’s why they always tried to squeeze the prices on that.”

His mission, he said, is to get the brands to pay a fair price to his factories. It’s a broken system, according to labour activists, and factory workers are paying the price.

“The brands should increase a little more so that our owner, our factory owners can increase our salaries,” said Lazina Akter.

While many believe international brands have let down workers in Bangladesh and fallen short on their promises to improve working conditions since the collapse of Rana Plaza, Loblaw’s Joe Fresh said it will continue its efforts to do better.

“We remain committed to transparency and accountability in our global supply chain,” the company said in a statement.

“And continue to collaborate with stakeholders, factory partners and industry organizations to drive positive change and protect the rights and well-being of workers where our products are made.”