Normally, soft jazz and two-for-one ads beckon shoppers into the gauzy world of daiquiri-hued bras and other shimmering underthings at La Senza Eaton Centre. Last week the consumer purr was disturbed by an anti-sweatshop leafleting campaign reminding customers of the nation's top lingerie chain that life isn't so rosy for the women who stitch their silks. The Montreal-based company is one of several (including Jacob, Gap and Victoria's Secret) whose lingerie is churned out by the Gina Form bra factory in Bangkok, a plant targeted by labour rights organizations. Activists charge that the factory's new management has mounted an aggressive anti-union campaign, arbitrarily firing over 40 union members and generally intimidating employees. They point to a report from the Thai National Human Rights Commission that declared the factory in violation of basic human rights and "disregarding human dignity" and ordered management to rehire the laid-off workers.
But just when protestors started to capture corporate attention on the matter, La Senza and Jacob both announced they were immediately severing all ties to the factory. It was not the turn of events anti-sweatshoppers had imagined - or desired.
Global workers' rights advocates have long found themselves in a dilemma regarding the demands they place on global retailers. In the delicate battle to secure employee rights, activists often tiptoe around companies, trying not to spook them into fleeing a bad factory and leaving workers jobless. That's why many organizations abstain from invoking boycotts and instead invite the public to join them in asking corporations to use their buying power to pressure supply factories to smarten up.
That's where things stood with La Senza. For months now the Toronto-based Maquila Solidarity Network (MSN) has been urging the company to respond to its communications about the plant. But now it seems last week's demos have inadvertently prompted La Senza to walk away from Gina Form.
La Senza president Lawrence Lewin says the protests at malls across the country convinced him to drop the Thai supplier. "If these guys harass people in our stores, of course we won't use (that factory).
"I will not get involved in an inter-union rivalry that's 10,000 miles away," he adds, referring to the dust-up between the original union and a new pro-company union at the plant. Workers say management is intimidating them into switching their allegiance.
La Senza's snipping of ties with Gina Form comes one week after Jacob, one of Canada's largest women's clothing chains (with approximately 200 stores and its own line of lingerie), announced that it was also ending relations with the plant, citing "business considerations, including pricing, type and line of product, quality of work, delivery delays, etc."
Jacob spokesperson Jean François Vallion says pressuring factories to clean up their act is not its responsibility. "We cannot step into the shoes of governments that can come up with the means to change things there.
"When you try to deal with issues as complex as the ones you are raising, more often than not business people are not apt at dealing with those questions," Vallion says. "We don't have the people to do that and we don't have the money to do that."
MSN sees Jacob's and La Senza's complaints as the familiar cries of smaller corporations lacking the well-oiled PR machines of multinational giants like the Gap. After weathering a decade of attacks over sweatshop abuses, the Gap twice swooped in to investigate the Gina Form bra factory, held meetings with the workers' union and requested that management settle the situation.
"Canadian retailers are 10 years behind their U.S. competitors," says MSN's Tullia Marcolongo, when it comes to negating bad press.
MSN reps say they even gave the Canadian companies Gap's e-mail so they could discuss how to deal with the problems, which Marcolongo points out would not take extra money or personnel. She says all they asked was that Jacob and La Senza write a letter to their supplier to express their discontent.
Marcolongo cautions that running won't make their the problems disappear. "Who knows now if Jacob and La Senza are going to put their orders in to another factory with the same conditions, or even worse?"