On April 24, the Rana Plaza building near the city of Dhaka Bangladesh collapsed killing over 300 workers and injuring almost 2,500. This is on the heels of a factory fire that killed 117 workers in a garment factory in November 2012, and an additional 28 workers killed in a fire in December, 2010. The Clean Clothing Campaign has reported that since the Tazreen fire, another 28 factory fires have been reported in Bangladesh, injuring at least 591 more workers and killing another eight.
Many garment companies with Canadian outlets profit from the low wages, and unsafe working conditions that are found in the clothing factories around Dhaka. In the most recent tragedy, Loblaw’s clothing line, Joe Fresh was identified as one of the customers. Previous incidents have included workers that made clothing for Walmart, H&M, Zara and Superstore Outlets.
The Canadian government has made economic development through trade and investment a priority in Bangladesh, which is now the second largest source of Canadian merchandise imports from South Asia, after India. The value of our bilateral trade has more than doubled between 2005 and 2012, due to a preferentialtariff regime, the Least Developed Country Tariff, that allows Canadian clothing companies to import about $1.2 billion annually in garments, duty free and without any quotas. We now import more than to $1.6 billion worth of merchandise from Bangladesh, over 95 per cent of which are apparel and textiles.
Bangladesh monitoring and enforcement track record on labour standards is very poor. Less than one per cent of garment workers in Bangladesh are represented by a trade union, because of labour laws that leave workers unable to join a union and fight for improved working conditions and safer work places.
Bangladeshi workers will continue to be devalued and to work in horrendously unsafe conditions until such time public policy shifts and they obtain the legislative right, and encouragement to organize and to legally assert their legitimate claims to both fair wages and safe working conditions. To do this they need the right to form free trade unions in order to assert their collective goals. Canada has a role to play in insisting that the labour rights we codify are present in countries with home we trade.
In conjunction with the CLC, CUPE has called on the Canadian government to work with international community and social partners to develop a strong and enforceable system to recognize labour rights and workplace health and safety.