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A wake-up call for Canadian consumers

Garments sold here sewn in death trap

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TORONTO -- As rescuers continued to pull corpses and survivors from the rubble of a collapsed garment factory in Bangladesh, some consumers in Canada were shocked to learn items from their favourite brands were made there.

The building collapsed Wednesday killing at least 238 people, many of them poorly paid workers who were forced to keep producing clothes even after police ordered an evacuation due to deep, visible cracks in the walls.

Canadian clothing line Joe Fresh was among the customers of the garment factories operating in the building.

Natalie Erb, 24, shops at Joe Fresh at least once a week for everything from yoga clothes to office wear, she said. The news out of Bangladesh has the loyal customer disturbed about her purchases.

"To be honest, I had never really done much research into where Joe Fresh manufactures their clothing, but knowing what I do now, I'm hugely disappointed in the company," said the Halifax woman.

"I don't know if I'll be buying from the line any time soon, or ever again for that matter."

Joe Fresh parent company Loblaw (TSX:L) released a statement Thursday saying some Joe Fresh items were made in the factory and offered its condolences to the victims and their families.

The company said it requires vendors to ensure products are being manufactured in a socially responsible way, prohibiting child harassment, abuse and forced labour, as well as ensuring fair pay, benefits and health and safety standards.

Spokeswoman Julija Hunter said the standards are audited on a regular basis and align with those of the industry around the world.

"However, in light of the recent tragedies in Bangladesh we recognize that these measures do not address the issue of building construction or integrity," she said in a statement.

Loblaw is in the process of reaching out to the Retail Council of Canada, other retailers and government to establish a review to address Bangladesh's approach to factory standards, Hunter said.

"We don't have all the answers today," she wrote. "But we are committed to taking the necessary steps to drive change, and find better solutions to ensure safe working conditions for production facilities with which we do business."

Worker Rights Consortium, a labour-rights monitoring organization, first circulated a photo of a Joe Fresh label amid the rubble in Bangladesh. The country is the "worst place in the world for apparel workers," said the group's executive director.

But it's certainly not alone, said Scott Nova, and that should come as a surprise to no one.

"It has been well known for many years that most of the apparel bought and worn by people in Canada and the U.S. and Europe is made in developing countries where the industries are defined by low wages and poor working conditions," he said from Washington, D.C.

"You can try to buy stuff that's made in Canada or made in the U.S. You can buy from a handful of niche brands that generally produce under better conditions, but 99.9 per cent of the apparel that's offered for sale to consumers is made in sweatshops."

Everyone wants high-quality products at a good price, said Dara O'Rourke, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley and co-founder of GoodGuide, an online resource that gives products health, environmental and ethical ratings. But there are costs to those low prices, he said.

"If you walk into a Joe Fresh or Walmart or a Sears or a Target or whatever and you see a polo shirt and it's $5.99... the next thought should be: 'What is the company doing to lower their cost of production so much? Are they outsourcing the responsibility on treating workers fairly? Are they outsourcing and externalizing the environmental costs of this?"' he said.

Among the clients of garment makers in the building were The Children's Place and Dress Barn, Britain's Primark, Spain's Mango, Italy's Benetton and Walmart.

 

-- The Canadian Press, with files from The Associated Press

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 26, 2013 A15

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