By Robin Smith, Second Vice-President
York University Staff Association
In recent weeks, we have all seen or heard news stories about the Bangladeshi workers who were either injured or crushed to death when the garment factory where they worked collapsed. Scenarios such as this have occurred countless times in recent years, and have spawned an international outcry around intolerable working conditions. In this case, the Bangladeshi women endured horrific working conditions in order to sew clothing for the popular ‘Joe Fresh’ fashion line. Warnings about the structural integrity of the building were ignored and for these women, work refusal was not an option. If they did not report for work, or complained, they were readily dismissed.
Today, Mother’s Day in North America, we celebrate the women in our lives, and the remarkable contributions they have made to our lives. The news is on, and far away, another Mother’s Day story is unfolding. One thousand dead and rising – and images of women who were either too old and frail for these hours of work – or far too young to be initiated into the ugly world of manual labour. What the reports are not saying is that these victims were also mothers and daughters, sisters and friends. While we celebrate the women in our lives, many families are mourning the loss of theirs. They have been referred to as ‘disposable’ labour – easily recruited and easily replaced. Things may be replaceable – people never should.
But we should not be surprised. The working conditions in factories such as this one in Bangladesh are well recorded – in the news, in documentary films and more recently through the global exposure to social media. Significant efforts have been made to increase awareness – petitions have been circulated, boycotts organized, demonstrations staged – all with the intent to expose the lives and working conditions of those who produce western consumer products, particularly in the electronics and fashion industries. Even the most tireless efforts of social activists and human rights supporters have fallen on deaf ears.
Governments who have lax health and safety standards will always draw those who are looking for cheap labour, regardless of the impact on the labourers.
As consumers, we hold the ultimate power in our voices and in our wallets. We cannot allow ourselves to turn away or become desensitized to the horrors abroad. Once we know that they exist, and do not speak out against them, we become complicit.
Over time, and under unrelenting public pressure, some companies, such and H&M and The Gap, have stepped up and pressured foreign government officials and factory owners to institute health and safety measures to protect their workers. In some cases, North American companies have successfully negotiated agreements to ensure that workers who produce their products do not run the daily risk of workplace hazards.
Perhaps not surprising, the biggest hold out to reform is ‘Wal-mart’. Wal-mart consistently resists any efforts to commit to an agreement that would regulate building and fire safety codes for workers who manufacture their products, even though the magnitude of the Wal-mart production contracts could wield great influence to these factory owners.
Last week, Galen Weston, President of Loblaws and founder of the ‘President’s Choice’ and ‘Joe Fresh’, spoke emotionally about the tragedy in Bangladesh. He promised to compensate the victims and their families. Money will, of course, help to support those who have lost their parents, siblings, mothers, children – many who were core family financial providers. But this is not enough. Galen Weston is empowered to make change – to demand that Loblaws suppliers adhere to health and safety standards or risk losing huge contracts. He must make a stand and be the voice of Canadians who say they will not shop to save pennies where the true cost of savings is measured in human lives.
As consumers, we hold the ultimate power in our voices and in our wallets. We cannot allow ourselves to turn away or become desensitized to the horrors abroad. Once we know that they exist, and do not speak out against them, we become complicit. Many human rights organizations, unions, local and international labour monitoring groups are working hard rally support for these workers through petitions and letter campaigns to governments and corporate leaders. Others are staging boycotts of products manufactured under such inhuman working conditions. Public demonstrations are held and memorial vigils are daily reminders to pressure government officials.
Throughout history, people have sacrificed their lives in order that the lives of their children will be better. Have we not evolved beyond the need of one generation to sacrifice themselves for the next? This Mother’s Day speak out for those who no longer can. Tell retailers that the credibility of their company relies on their social responsibility to be good employers in order to keep them coming back. Tell them that you won’t buy their products (and then don’t!) Tell them that you will not buy their products until you received some assurance that tragedies such as the one in Bangladesh will not happen again. You might even have to say that you are willing to pay a little more for a product if that increase translates into improvement to the conditions of those who manufacturing our goods. It’s time to say ‘enough’. I’m OK with that.