While companies throughout the US and Europe continue to join an accord that legally obliges them to improve working conditions in Bangladesh garment factories, most Canadian retailers are rejecting the initiative, a top Canadian newspaper reports.
Just one Canadian company, Loblaw, has signed on to theAccord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, compared to 18 major UK companies and 11 Australian retailers, Toronto Star quotes Alan Roberts, the accord’s international operations executive director, as saying.
“Canada is far behind on the idea of corporate social responsibility,” Roberts said in an interview. “Most Canadian companies today are where UK companies were in the mid-1990s.
“Same for the Canadian government,” he said. “The UK, Belgium and the Dutch government have all said they are going to demand full transparency from any company that bids for public-sector apparel contracts. Canada should do the same.”
The Canadian government doesn’t know whether sweatshops are being used to produce some of the uniforms for its civil servants because companies that win apparel contracts with most federal agencies aren’t required to disclose the names and locations of the factories they use, the report said.
After 1,129 factory workers were killed in the Rana Plaza collapse on April 24, a group of mostly European-based retailers announced the accord, membership in which requires companies to be legally bound to make factories safer.
Days after the accord was announced in July, a rival group known as the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety was also announced. It is mostly US retailers, including Walmart and The Gap.
Roberts, a former executive with retailers Speedo and Burberry, was hired by the accord in December and charged with expanding its membership.
There are now 152 accord members, with four new members this week alone. Another 10 companies have written Roberts in recent days to ask about joining, he said.
“I really don’t know why there hasn’t been more interest in Canada,” Toronto Star quotes him as saying.
“There will be more tragedies in Bangladesh. Just (Tuesday) there was a factory fire there and fortunately no one was hurt, but this is not going away. I’d think Canadian companies want to make sure they are doing everything they cannot to be tied to exploited workers in unsafe conditions when this happens next.”
A Retail Council of Canada spokesperson didn’t return phone calls or emails from the Star, while a spokesperson for Public Works said it would not be possible to immediately provide a comment.
Roberts met in Toronto on Tuesday with 16 Canadian companies in a meeting and teleconference hosted by the Retail Council of Canada. He said he’s still struggling to understand why Canadian retailers have not signed up to the accord.
“The attitude they seem to have is, ‘I’m not signing up because I’m not signing a blank check,’” Roberts said. “But that’s not the case.”
If a company exports less than $1 million worth of clothing from Bangladesh, they are obliged to pay $1,000 a year for five years for an accord membership, he said. The company would also be required to cover some of the cost of factory safety improvements.
Roberts also met Wednesday morning with some Bay Street firms to offer an update on the accord’s efforts in recent months.
He said that since three pilot projects were competed in December, four engineering firms have been hired to begin factory inspections. Their contracts are scheduled to be signed this week, Roberts said, and inspections are to begin in March.
Of the 1,700 Bangladeshi factories that make clothing for accord members, 200 will be inspected in March, he said. After an inspection, companies have four weeks to negotiate with the factory owner before the inspection results and repair plan are publicly released.
Roberts said the accord has also established three outreach teams in Dhaka that will begin training garment-factory workers about their legal rights.