Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

To preserve the jobs in Bangladesh

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The police have captured the owner of the Dhaka garment factory where around 400 people died after the building fell down last Wednesday. They have also arrested owners of some of the garment businesses that kept their workers in the building last week even after large cracks appeared in it last Tuesday afternoon. Two municipal engineers involved in approving the design of the building were detained for questioning. The search for survivors was ended.

Canadian consumers are left wondering where they can buy clothing that is not tainted with the stain of exploitation and abuse. They are looking for someone who will intervene on their behalf to insist on ordinary human decency in garment manufacturing.

Garment manufacturing is low-wage work. This was true in 1843 when the British poet Thomas Hood published the Song of the Shirt. Stitch! stitch! stitch! In poverty, hunger, and dirt, And still with a voice of dolorous pitch She sang the 'Song of the Shirt.'

It continued to be true in 1911 when 146 garment workers died in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York's Greenwich Village and it is still true today.

The struggle to improve conditions for garment workers has been painful and unrelenting. That struggle must continue. There is little chance that garment-making will be turned into high-wage work because there is a limitless supply of people willing and able to stitch-stitch-stitch for a dollar a day. But there is no reason for people to die in visibly unsafe buildings.

Bangladesh is an agricultural economy that has achieved rapid economic growth through development of the textile industry. Garment manufacture was a crucial early step for Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and other countries that have become Asia's economic tigers. As wages rose in those countries, China became the cheap labour pool. Now it is Bangladesh's turn. As wages rise in Bangladesh, garment manufacturers will resume the search for the cheapest place to make clothing. Canadian consumers will continue to enjoy low-priced apparel.

Conditions can, however, be improved for Bangladeshi garment workers. The public authorities of Dhaka can take firm action when cracks appear in an eight-storey industrial building and get everybody out of the building. They can enforce the standards that are needed in all countries to prevent builders from taking shortcuts.

Encouraging formation of strong and effective unions for garment workers may also help. Unions that merely line the pockets of the union leaders will do no good, but unions that curb the power of employers to exploit their workers will help curb the worst abuses.

When the Harper government narrowed the focus of Canada's foreign-aid program to concentrate in selected countries, it kept Bangladesh as a favoured recipient. Because of the garment-factory disaster -- and the production in that building of apparel for the Canadian Joe Fresh label -- Canadians are now keenly aware that they are involved in the Dhaka disaster. They can also play a role in what happens next.

Canada should preserve duty-free access for Bangladeshi goods coming to Canada. Raising tariff walls may help throw some Dhaka garment workers out of their jobs, but that is not an aim worth pursuing. Canada should offer training and support for Bangladesh textile-industry unions. It should encourage Canadian importers of Bangladeshi textiles to visit the plants where their goods are made and make human contact with the employees.

Canadian clothing retailers should organize a regular forum in which they can sit down with Bangladeshi garment manufacturers -- their suppliers -- to tell them about the views and concerns of Canadian consumers and hear about steps that are being taken in Bangladesh to alleviate those concerns. The employers in Dhaka need to know the Canadian market is keeping an eye on them -- not just this month while the disaster is making headlines, but for years to come.

Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board, comprising Catherine Mitchell, David O’Brien and Paul Samyn.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 1, 2013 A8

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