Do You Know the Women Who Made Your Clothes? Good Luck Finding Out!

by Dana Stefov | April 24, 2022
Background media: Grey rocks of varying sizes along with parts of grey torn cotton material are mixed with pieces of old wood and string. A dirty Joe Fresh label sits in the middle of the rocks on the ground.
Photo: NYU Stern BHR | Licensed by CC BY-NC 2.0

Nine years ago today, 1,132 factory workers – mostly women being paid poverty wages – lost their lives in the Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh. Another 2,500 garment workers were injured in the disaster. The world’s eyes turned to the long-forgotten problem of 'sweatshops' and labour exploitation in global supply chains shocked to learn how dismal working conditions still are.

Rana Plaza brought significant occupational health and safety violations to light but also the lack of transparency within the garment industry. Approximately 30 global brands sourced from the factory, including Joe Fresh (Loblaw) from Canada. However, at the time, there was confusion about who sourced from Rana Plaza. According to the Bangladesh Centre for Worker Solidarity, a national labour rights organization, when the news of the collapse broke, not a single brand stepped forward to admit to sourcing there. Evidence collected at the scene and photographs of clothing labels in the rubble helped bring the story to light.

Joe Fresh was caught amidst that public outcry having been identified as one of the companies sourcing from Rana Plaza. Since that time, their parent company, Loblaw, has contributed to efforts to improve working conditions and support the victims signing on to the binding Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh. Following the Rana Plaza collapse, Joe Fresh also began their road towards greater transparency by publishing their factory names and countries – but not addresses – on their website.

Despite some post-Rana Plaza progress, wages in the Bangladesh garment industry remain extremely low and workers’ lives have seen little improvement over the past decade. Garment workers interviewed last year in factories producing clothing for global and Canadian companies, including Joe Fresh and lululemon, reported their wages were so low they could not cover basic living expenses, such as food and housing. Workers seeking to defend their rights by joining unions also faced retaliation from factory management, leaving them virtually unable to organize, thus further exacerbating their vulnerability.

The pandemic only added fuel to the fire – paralyzing supply chains, and further exacerbating despair and hunger among garment workers. Their jobs and livelihoods were at risk due to cancelled orders, withheld wages and the uncertainty of how the pandemic would affect their health and employment. The words "global supply chains" have been making headlines like never before but there is little awareness of the situation of the workers in those chains.

Supply chain transparency is a key element of paying living wages. Disclosure requires companies to know where they are sourcing from and communicate that information internally and externally. It allows for regulators, consumers, human rights and labour organizations to monitor which suppliers a company is using and if changes in wages, unionization, grievance mechanisms and other human rights protections are in place, as well as if improvements in these areas cause a company to change suppliers.

Most brands do not publicly disclose where their clothes are made, and when they do, the information is incomplete or too vague. Transparency for transparency's sake is not enough but we know that transparency can lead to better sourcing practices, greater accountability and more sustainable supply chains, all of which have the potential to improve working conditions and wages.

In 2016, a group of leading human rights groups, labour rights activists and unions came together to form the Transparency Pledge Coalition to improve transparency in garment and footwear supply chains. Oxfam Canada's What She Makes campaign, which calls on Canadian fashion brands to pay living wages to the women who make their clothes, is asking Canadian brands to meet the minimum standards of the pledge. Transparency is a key step in moving towards living wages and forms part of the Runway to Living Wages we are asking brands to develop.

Companies that sign the Transparency Pledge commit to publishing accurate information about their supply chain. Why?

  • Supply chain transparency can help workers gain faster access to redress for human rights abuses;
  • Supply chain transparency is central to conducting effective human rights due diligence;
  • Publishing supply chain information builds trust with customers, employees, unions, investors and the general public.

lululemon and Mountain Equipment Co-op are the two Canadian brands that are fully aligned, along with a few dozen other global brands. Joe Fresh is not on the list but could be by adding a few more details to its reporting.

A bar graph of Canadian imports of clothing manufacturing by country in 2021. China is the top manufacturing country, producing 4 billion dollars, follwoed by Bangladesh, Vietnam, Cambodia, the U.S., Italy, India, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, and Mexico.

Oxfam Canada is promoting transparency and full supply chain disclosure as an important first step towards achieving better working conditions and living wages for the women who make our clothes. We expect Canadian brands to publicly disclose the following information on their website:

  • Full name of authorized production units and processing facilities
  • Site addresses
  • Parent companies
  • Type of products made
  • Number of workers

There is widespread support for Canadian brands to move towards paying living wages, being transparent and meeting industry best practice around the world. A public opinion study of 600 Canadians, commissioned by Oxfam Canada in 2019, reveals that 82 per cent of consumers believe Canadian clothing brands should ensure a living wage and proper working conditions for the people who make and sell their clothes.

Tell Joe Fresh that Rana Plaza is still in our memories and that, after nine years, they owe it to all those who were lost to do better.

Join us in calling on Joe Fresh to be fully transparent around their supplier factories and begin the journey towards paying living wages by making a public commitment. Let's not  wait another nine years to end the labour exploitation of the women who make our clothes.

Dana Stefov is a Women's Rights policy and advocacy specialist at Oxfam Canada.


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