·  by Kalpona Akter and Ken Neumann   ·  The Toronto Star

We Can Help Bangladeshi Garment Workers, Who Still Struggle Eight Years After Factory Collapse

The following opinion column was published by the Toronto Star

By Kalpona Akter and Ken Neumann

Canadians and consumers around the world were shocked and outraged by the horrific images of the Rana Plaza collapse in Dhaka, Bangladesh, on April 24, 2013, when at least 1,132 garment workers were killed and more than 2,500 injured. How could Canadian and other global clothing brands be implicated in a human catastrophe of such magnitude?

The international outcry forced these clothing brands to finally recognize fundamental changes were needed to protect garment workers, and to accept that corporations at the top of the supply chain had the power to make it happen.

The resulting Bangladesh Accord for Building and Fire Safety, a binding international agreement between trade unions and global retailers and fashion brands, revolutionized building and fire safety in Bangladesh’s garment factories. Out of unimaginable tragedy, change was possible.

On the eighth anniversary of the Rana Plaza disaster, however, hundreds of thousands of Bangladeshi garment workers, the majority of whom are women, are suffering devastating effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and its economic shocks.

Global brands, including Canadian retailers, decided to cancel orders without consideration of the impact on workers in their global supply chains, which are designed to force costs down and push profits to the top. The results have been disastrous for garment workers, whose pay has been reduced, withheld, even stolen, or who have been laid off or terminated, often without legally mandated severance.

The Workers’ Rights Consortium estimates the theft of garment workers’ severance pay alone amounts to $500 million across the global supply chain.

Bangladeshi garment workers earn the equivalent of $6 or $7 (Canadian) a day. Not per hour – per day. Long, gruelling days. These are the wages paid by factories supplying well-known Canadian brands, including Joe Fresh, Mark’s, Lululemon, Arc’teryx, the YM Inc group (West 49, Amnesia, Bluenotes, Sirens, Suzy Sheer) and others. A real living wage would be roughly triple what most Bangladeshi garment workers earn. Let’s keep in mind, it would still only be a small fraction of the living wage in Canada.

Garment workers’ existing wages clearly aren’t nearly enough to support a decent life. As documented in a new report, Not Even the Bare Minimum, these wages trap workers in poverty, no matter how hard they work. The pandemic has only made life worse.

We know that changes that will improve the lives of millions of garment workers are within reach — if Canadian retailers and brands are prepared to act. The misery experienced by garment workers makes it an ethical imperative for these corporations to act immediately and decisively.

This obligation extends beyond fancy sustainability reports and revised corporate vendor codes. Meaningful commitments are needed from corporations to ensure payment of lost wages and severance for workers in their supply chains, and to pay a little bit more to suppliers so that workers can receive living wages.

It is important to note that, while garment workers — mostly women — bear the brunt of the pandemic, Canadian companies like Aritzia, Arc’teryx, Canadian Tire, Loblaw and Lululemon have not only weathered the COVID storm, they have done well.

These companies have the power and resources to make change and help build a sustainable recovery for garment workers and their industry. On the anniversary of the Rana Plaza disaster, it is up to the rest of us to push them to do it — from right at the top of the house.

Change is possible.

Kalpona Akter, a former child garment worker, is the executive director of the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity.
Ken Neumann is the Canadian director of the United Steelworkers union, which for years has supported campaigns to improve the working and living conditions of garment workers in global supply chains.

View this column as published by the Toronto Star

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