Smithson: Garment industry needs to rethink production

Investing in workers’ safety is a whole lot better for the corporate brand than paying for their deaths.

“Thrown out with all the rusted, tangled, dented goddamn


Canadian singer Jann Arden’s lyric came to mind as I read a stack of articles about the garment factory collapse in Dhaka, Bangladesh.

More than 600 workers have been killed and more are still unaccounted for.

It was a senseless, reckless, negligent workplace tragedy that is just the latest in an ongoing series of such disasters in places far away where clothes are produced for stores located very nearby.

Late last year, the Tazreen Fashions Ltd. factory in Dhaka burned down.

It produced clothes for a number of well-known North American retailers.

It occupied a nine-storey building and employed more than 1,000 low-wage workers.

Some 110 bodies were recovered after a fire ripped through the factory, causing panicked workers to leap from high windows in an attempt to escape. Most of the workers were women, most earned less than $40 per month.

Bangladesh is now a global centre for clothes manufacturing due to its cheap labour, with many popular brands using factories there to produce items for export to western markets.

Workplace safety standards can be pathetically low (or non-existent) or simply not enforced.

That disaster came on the heels of another fire in a Pakistan garment factory which killed 289 workers and injured 110 more.

As for the Tazreen fire, some reports quoted survivors as saying that doors were locked, managers prevented them from leaving the building, the factory had lost its fire safety certification due to a lack of proper safety arrangements and there were, apparently, no emergency fire exits whatsoever.

Loblaw, which had some of its Joe Fresh line of products made at the collapsed site in Dhaka, has come forward with the concept of financial compensation for families of the affected workers.

It’s a grisly choice these companies have made, of paying families of dead workers instead of spending money to ensure their safety and welfare in the first place.

Loblaw would say, of course, that it never envisioned this sort of a tragedy and, if it had, it would have acted.

But anyone with a modicum of knowledge of working conditions in the garment industry in places like Bangladesh would have known such a disaster was inevitable and turning a blind eye isn’t the same thing as innocence.

The price of producing clothing at bargain-basement prices in places like Bangladesh seems to be subjecting production workers to bargain-basement conditions.

Wages hover in the range of $2 per day and workplace safety is sacrificed for the cause of production efficiency.

There have been too many of these tragedies, too many for our own companies to continue funding that system with their orders and too many for consumers to continue supporting companies like Loblaw with their purchasing.

It’s time for corporate leaders in this country, like Loblaw’s chief executive officer, Galen Weston, to become proactive rather than reactive.

Investing in workers’ safety is a whole lot better for the corporate brand than paying for their deaths.

Weston recently stated, “Our priority is to do what’s right for those affected by the tragedy…” and that Loblaw is sending “senior executives” to Bangladesh to “determine, to the best extent possible, how to make the biggest difference.”

Galen, if you want to make a difference, perhaps start fresh by asking why your company cannot figure out a way for Canadian workers to produce quality clothing at an acceptably low price and, at the same time, receive a decent wage and decent working conditions.

Ask yourself why it’s taken for granted that the only equation which produces the desired items at attractive prices is one in which foreign workers are exploited, abused, injured and killed.

This country produced the present commander of the international space station. It built a 4,000 kilometre transcontinental railway largely by hand through inhospitable wilderness, over rivers and across mountain ranges.

Canadian soldiers conquered Vimy Ridge when others had failed.

Our inventors produced the insulin process, basketball, the heart pacemaker, the snowmobile, standard time, the telephone, the goalie mask, the electron microscope, wireless radio and the Robertson screw.

Surely we have the collective know-how to overcome the labour cost disadvantage of manufacturing here at home.

There must be production efficiencies which can be devised and exploited to overcome that wage gap, whether they be in sourcing of materials, supply chain management, inventory control, production processes, automation, whatever.

Galen, my request is that you spend less time sitting in Canadians’ kitchens chatting with housewives about their dinnertime preferences.

Spend more time thinking about how your company can do its founders, employees, shareholders and customers proud.

Figure out how to repatriate a slice of the garment industry so that workers in Canada can earn a wage in a decent setting and so that Canadians can be proud, rather than embarrassed, about the origins of the products you sell.

Find a way to show the world that employees in the garment industry (no matter where they live) aren’t doomed to be sacrificial lambs in the production equation.

Maybe then, when you’ve shown the way, garment producers in the rest of the world will see that, to stay in business, they’d better start keeping up with those goddamn Canadians.

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