Bangladeshi workers lead protest march in Vancouver for safety accord

More than 100 protesters marched through Hudson’s Bay in downtown Vancouver on Monday, demanding the company do more to address safety issues and workers’ rights months after the collapse of the RanaPlaza garment factory in Bangladesh.

The protesters took over the second floor of The Bay chanting, “Stop the killing! Sign the accord!”, urging the store to sign on to an international agreement known as the Bangladesh Safety Accord.

Kalpona Akter, executive director of the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity, speaks from personal experience when she talks about factory conditions in Bangladesh.

Standing next to $300 blouses in The Bay’s swanky women’s section, Kalpona Akter, the executive director of the Bangladesh Centre for Worker Solidarity, said it would take Bangladeshi workers six months to earn enough to buy just one blouse.

Akter said Canadian companies have not done enough to address safety issues and workers rights.

“If the company had signed the accord in 2011 when it started, we would not have lost these 1,200 workers,” said Akter in an interview with CBC Radio’s Rick Cluff on The Early Edition.

She called on The Bay to offer “jobs with dignity” in her home country, where Akter herself faced poor factory conditions as a child.

Child labourer

At the age of 12, when her father — the primary earner in her family — couldn’t work anymore, she had to drop out of school to start working in a garment factory.

“It was a different world,” she said.

But her tenure didn’t last long. Akter was fired four years later after she tried to organize a union.

“Let me say this in one clear loud voice: that consumers and Canadians do not want this blood on their clothes.”

“I had no idea what the law was,” she said describing her surprise when she learned companies could be sued for poor working conditions.

Over time, Akter came to learn the laws around collective bargaining and worker’s rights, noting child labour is not as common now as it was when she was working as a teenager.

But she still believes worker safety and rights have a long way to go, and she wants The Bay to sign the Bangladesh Safety Accord.

More than 1,100 garment workers were killed in the collapse of the RanaPlaza building last April.

Loblaw’s own shipping records reveal hundreds of thousands of garments were made at the site before the deadly collapse, and then sold in Canada after the tragedy.

“They went to work to produce the clothes, so that Canadians could have clothes on their backs. And let me say this in one clear loud voice: that consumers and Canadians do not want this blood on their clothes,” said Jim Sinclair, president of the B.C. Federation of Labour.

The legally binding five-year agreement will see independent safety inspections conducted by an auditor hired by the signatories to the accord, mandatory repairs and renovations and repercussions for suppliers who refuse to improve conditions, including the termination of business.

A separate accord

During Monday’s protest, a store manager politely listened to protesters and then said: “No comment.”

Representative from the Bay declined CBC’s requests for an interview.

But in an email statement, spokeswoman Tiffany Bourré said while the company has not signed onto the accord, it has signed — along with other North America retailers including Canadian Tire — the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety, a separate accord which puts more onus on the Bangladeshi government to play a role in worker safety in future by upgrading national fire and building standards.

“Earlier this month in Dhaka, Bangladesh, the International Labour Organization (ILO), technical experts from the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety, the Accord on Fire and Building Safety, and the Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology (BUET) came to agreement on a common, minimum criterion for fire and structural inspection safety standards,” Bourré said.

-CBC News.