It takes at least 20 hours to fly from Toronto to Dhaka, Bangladesh.
But even Canadians who never make the trip need only go as far as the bedroom closet before most find clothes that were made there, says local NDP MP Matthew Kellway.
And some of those clothes were cut and sewn in working conditions that would shock us, he said.
On April 24, Kellway led a delegation from five Canadian trade unions to visit the site of Rana Plaza, an eight-storey garment factory that collapsed and killed 1,138 people exactly one year before. About 2,500 people survived with injuries. Some 800 children were orphaned.
Rana Plaza was the worst, but not the only such accident, said Kellway. Even before it or the 2012 Tazreen Fashion fire grabbed world headlines, labour groups were raising flags about safety problems in Bangladeshi garment factories.
“You could see these things coming,” he said.
Local filmmaker Fuad Chowdhury joined Kellway on the recent week-long trip to Dhaka, in part to film the current conditions of garment factories for the Canadian Labour Congress.
But Chowdhury’s film crew was barred from the first factory they visited. It was an older building, repurposed 20 or 30 years ago, and Kellway, the film crew, and union delegates showed up with fire safety inspectors without giving notice to the owners.
Later, after Kellway spoke with the president of Bangladesh’s garment industry association, Chowdhury was allowed to film in a newer factory.
This time, they arrived with Canada’s High Commissioner to Bangladesh, and found a red carpet, security guards in dress uniforms, and flower petals waiting for them at the entrance. Built in 2000, the complex had 14,000 employees, an on-site daycare and medical clinic.
But although its facilities were better, Kellway said even in the newer factory there were no fire doors on any stairwells, meaning they could draw fire from floor to floor like chimneys.
Kellway has asked Canada’s federal government to review its own labour-monitoring laws when sourcing clothes from Bangladesh. He said it’s not clear even to the Canadian government just what factory its clothes are made in.
“It’s not enough for the government of Canada to say it’s somebody else’s information, and we don’t know,” he said.
Kellway is also calling on Ottawa to endorse the Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety, a five-year agreement that includes 150 mostly European retailers, two international unions and several unions in Bangladesh.
Signatories to the Accord, which include Loblaw’s Joe Fresh brand, agree to fund factory inspections and repairs, and to remain in the country for at least two years despite higher operating costs.
Another five-year agreement, the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety, is backed by 26 North American clothing retailers, including Canadian Tire and Walmart.
Kellway is skeptical of the Alliance. He said its inspections reports are published so findings can’t be tied to a particular factory, and it’s missing a strong pledge to stay in Bangladesh.
“What they can do with the Alliance is just pick up stakes and move on,” he said.
So far, the Alliance covers inspections for 700 of Bangladesh’s estimated 5,000 garment factories, while the Accord covers 1,545. At times, the two agreements may send inspectors to the same factory, leading to tension when the results are published.
Loblaw’s Joe Fresh has doubled its output in Bangladesh since its clothes were found in the rubble of Rana Plaza a year ago, Kellway said, which he took as proof that Accord signatories can stay in the country and be profitable.
Loblaw has also donated $3.3 million to a trust fund for Rana Plaza survivors, a relatively large contribution. At US $15 million, the fund is still well below its US $40 million target.
Kellway has also travelled to the US to meet elected officials and labour organizers about the issue.
The US federal government recently cancelled preferential tariffs on some non-garment Bangladeshi imports, in order to add pressure for better working conditions.
Kellway noted that the American AFL-CIO labour federation had already called several times for those trade perks to be removed, for the same reason.