Ever since Joe Fresh labels were found in the ruins of the Rana Plaza building in Dhaka, Bangladesh, where on April 24 over 400 employees were killed and hundreds injured, the brand has been put on the spot.
The question now being asked of Joe Fresh owner Loblaw is how the company will ensure that Bangladeshi workers making its clothes aren't walking into a potential deathtrap every morning.
Loblaw's initial response has been that it audits its suppliers for compliance with health and safety regulations "on a regular basis."
Over the last eight years, a string of factory collapses and fires in Bangladesh has prompted many brands to promote this kind of voluntary monitoring as the stock answer to an escalating body count. Too bad the strategy has proven haphazard and notoriously unreliable.
Company-controlled auditing has failed time and time again to identify serious health and safety risks, let alone fix them.
What is needed is a comprehensive, independent and transparent inspection program with a commitment to actually fixing problems. There has to be support for factories that work to meet and exceed standards - better prices and longer-term orders, for example - and repercussions for factories that fail to make the grade.
We could start by insisting that all Canadian retailers and brands put their name to the Bangladesh Fire And Building Safety Agreement already signed by PVH (owner of the Tommy Hilfiger and Calvin Klein labels) and German retailer Tchibo.
That pact - in order to let consumers and labour rights groups track whether progress has been made - provides for independent audits and public disclosure of factories inspected and of those that fail to address problems.
The agreement also includes worker/management health and safety training and committees and the right of workers to file complaints and refuse unsafe work.
On top of such agreements, foreign companies should be promoting the right of workers in Bangladesh to participate in trade unions that can help identify risks on a day-to-day basis. And we should pressure the Canadian government, which has waived the tariff on garments from Bangladesh, to make worker rights and safety part of the bargain.
It's time for Canadian retailers, Joe Fresh, Walmart Canada and others, to get on board. Now. Before their clothing is being pulled out of the wreckage of yet another preventable disaster.
Kevin Thomas is director of advocacy for the Maquila Solidarity Network in Toronto.