Marianne Hladun, second from the right, and fellow delegation member Melanie McConnell (chair of Women of Steel committee for USW Local 7619, Kamloops, B.C.), fifth from the right, at the Bangladesh Centre for Worker Solidarity in 2016. The other women are volunteers who work to promote unions in the factories, and health and safety. (photo from NCJWC Winnipeg)
The Winnipeg section of National Council of Jewish Women of Canada is opening Canadians’ eyes to yet another critical, yet often overlooked, worldwide dilemma – that of garment workers’ working conditions.
Part of its focus on fair trade, NCJWC partnered with Congregation Shaarey Zedek Sisterhood to bring a national expert on the topic to Winnipeg for a speaking engagement on Dec. 13 at the synagogue. Event organizer Sharon Graham and guest speaker Marianne Hladun, regional executive vice-president of the Public Service Alliance of Canada, spoke with the Jewish Independent before that talk.
Originally from Toronto, Graham moved to Winnipeg 12 years ago, and joined the local NCJWC in 2016, serving as the volunteer secretary.
“I became interested in this topic around 2017,” she said. “There were a lot of reports in the news and radio about a new union-led report on supply chain transparency in the garment and footwear industry.”
Large retailers like Canadian Tire, Sport Chek and many others have made it hard for consumers to know where the products they sell are made, said Graham. It is a common tactic of most large retailers, so that individual manufacturers can’t dictate prices and product availability. However, there are other impacts.
“This way, you don’t really know where their items are made. And, because you don’t know which factory they’re made in, there’s no way to tell under what conditions they’re made,” said Graham. “So, I wrote a letter to Canadian Tire and, to their credit, they sent me the name and I looked them up online. There are websites you can look up online to see manufacturers – what kind of record they have for labour rights, or for transparency about labour rights, like, if they allow outsiders into their factory.”
For Graham, the subject is also personal. “If you’re an Ashkenazi Jew,” she said, “you probably have an ancestor or ancestors who’ve worked in the garment trade. For me, it was my grandfather and great-grandfather on different sides. And, for both those men, the garment trade brought them a good living. My great-grandfather did really well in furs and my grandfather had a good living as a patterner in the garment trade.”
In her capacity at PSAC, which is a federal union representing about 180,000 members across Canada, Hladun said, “I represent about 21,000 members in the Prairies and, as part of that responsibility, I was able to participate in a mission to Bangladesh in February 2016, following the Savar plant collapse disaster, which was on April 24, 2013.”
The Savar building was a workplace for thousands of garment workers. In the collapse, 1,134 people died and approximately 2,500 were injured.
Following the tragedy, a legally binding accord was drawn up on fire and building safety in Bangladesh. The accord was an agreement between global brands, retailers and trade unions, and set for five years, after which time, the operations and oversight would be transferred to the government.
“Coming from a country like Canada, where we do have a true democracy, corruption doesn’t come to our mind first and foremost when we’re talking about government and workers,” said Hladun. “But, when you go to a country like Bangladesh, you realize very quickly that their parliament is basically garment manufacturer factory owners. So, there seems to be no one that’s working for the workers. That was something that a lot of us had a hard time really comprehending – that no one has your back.”
During the visit in 2016, Hladun found that, in factories of brands that had signed the accord, changes were being made. But, the factories that had not signed it were continuing with business as usual.
“Keep in mind that very few factories are actually part of the accord,” said Hladun. “But, the ones that were part of it had started remediation. They had done the inspections and, basically, if the certified building inspector there on behalf of the accord says a factory doesn’t have a fire sprinkler system and needs to instal one, they will tell them so.
“Then, the brand is responsible to work with the factory owner, and the brand is actually taking responsibility by funding the remediation. And, we’re starting to see some of that work happening. It was slow, as it took awhile to get the inspections done. But, it was starting to happen [in 2016]. I think there were about 1,400 factories covered, out of about 5,000, at that time.”
According to Hladun, the Bangladesh high courts are now forcing the accord to close their main office in Dhaka. The plan was to have a transition accord wherein, over the next couple of years, the office would aim to transfer everything to the government and a national agency would continue this work. But, as a result of a lot of political pressure, it appears that the government would rather eliminate the accord.
“There is a lot of pressure,” said Hladun. “Canada’s high commissioners sent a letter in October to several of the ministers in the Bangladesh government, urging them to override the court and to legislate that the accord stay in place until the transition to the government body is done … because the work is nowhere near ready.”
If the accord is eliminated, she said, the situation would return “to conditions pre-Savar building collapse.”
The accord’s website, bangladeshaccord.org, shows the brands that have signed onto the accord. Hladun urged Canadians to contact the brands and ask them to advocate with the government to continue with the program. She also suggested that interested Canadians contact their federal MP and ask them to pressure the Bangladesh government to continue the accord.
Hladun strongly advised against lobbying for a boycott, saying “that is the worst thing we can do. Basically, the garment industry is 4.2 million workers in Bangladesh. That industry is the only thing that provides income for workers in Bangladesh. They do not want to see a boycott. They want to see support for better working conditions.”
Another way to show support is with your wallet, by shopping and supporting factories and brands that have signed onto the accord or are treating their workers ethically regardless.
Rebeca Kuropatwa is a Winnipeg freelance writer.