The collapse of Rana Plaza, a garment-manufacturing complex in Bangladesh, which killed 1,134 workers, sent shockwaves around the globe this past April. Just a few months earlier, the Tazreen factory fire had already killed cheap online viagra 117 people in the country. These latest episodes bring the death toll of Bangladeshi factory workers to over 1,800 since 2005. The appalling disparity between these downtrodden substandard garment factories and the upscale stores where the products are sold is nothing short of criminal.
Corporations such as Wal-Mart Canada and Joe Fresh which outsourced from these sweatshops came under intense heat. Investigative journalists, such as that of the CBC and the Toronto Star, have since revealed chilling facts. For example, it was found that workers evacuated Rana Plaza a day before the collapse but were forced to go back due to threats of termination. Since the collapse, workers continue to protest for the minimum wage to be increased from $39 a month to a mere $100. Stories of people like 10-year old Shakil Khan send shivers down the spine: he has been working as an unpaid trainee for 4-months and will make $4/day when he eventually gets a salary.
So, what has been done about all this? More importantly, what can we do as socially conscious consumers to ensure our clothes are not made through exploitation of others?
Calls for industry-wide reforms gave birth to initiatives such as the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh. This is the first agreement of it’s kind, one that promises to bring significant changes to working conditions in Bangladesh.
The Bangladesh Accord was drafted in conjunction with unions in Bangladesh, apparel companies and labour rights NGOs. It gives workers at factories increased protections such as the right to refuse unsafe work – something that could have saved the Rana Plaza disaster. In addition, it requires monetary commitments from global corporations to fund the repairs and renovations factories. Most importantly, the Accord is legally binding which means that global brands can now be held accountable in court for their operations abroad. Thanks to public pressure, this Accord has now been signed by over a hundred global clothing brands. This includes groups such as H&M, Calvin Klein, Tommy Hilfiger and even Canada’s Loblaws’ Joe Fresh.
However, corporate culprits Wal-Mart and Gap have started a parallel safety initiative instead of joining the Accord. Along with 20 other brands, the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety was created with hopes to also offer improved safety and better working conditions for factory workers. Despite the promises, the Alliance initiative lacks the rigour of the Bangladesh Accord, provisions for forming unions and more importantly, it’s not legally binding. This corporately-regulated voluntary initiative was drafted without consultation with unions and cannot be enforced by worker representatives – this leaves all the power with the companies. It was private regulation schemes that lead to disastrous results in the first place; it’s hard to see how a similar program could be a solution to the problem.
Many have dismissed the Wal-Mart/Gap initiative as simply a public relations exercise. NGO’s such as CleanClothes, United Students Against Sweatshops, Macquila Solidarity Network and LaborRights have already called for and started campaigns urging them to sign up for the Bangladesh Accord. Leading US labour federations jointly declared the Alliance initiative to be “weak and worthless”. In contrast, the UN Secretary General, EU and trade unions has accepted the Bangladesh Accord both globally and locally in Bangladesh.
So what are we to do in light of all these developments? Our best course of action is to pressure Wal-Mart/Gap and associated retailers to sign onto the legally binding Bangladesh Accord. Consumers have a better case to make as competing brands have already signed on to it and thus deserve recognition and preferential treatment by ethical buyers.
Assisting campaigns calling for implementation of the Accord is our best bet. One of the most effective ways of doing so is personally delivering a letter to your local Wal-Mart/Gap. Simply not buying from them isn’t effective, as it won’t get the message across. Emailing these corporations, posting on their Facebook/Twitter and signing onto petitions are also effective methods. Whether it be raising awareness through social media or just talking about it with your friends – any thing which puts pressure on corporations to invest in worker safety is key.
As I watched footage of overworked factory workers being pulled out of the rubble, I couldn’t help but wonder if the very clothes in my closet originated from that factory. It is our collective demand for cheap fashion that has empowered corporations to push factory owners beyond their safety limits. It is therefore our responsibility to call on these companies to implement radical reforms to ensure worker safety, ethical pricing and fair-wages.
Quebec’s government has taken its xenophobic rhetoric to new heights. The proposed legislation would ban “overt and conspicuous” religious symbols on government employees. Whether it is a doctor at a hospital wearing a turban, or a hijab-donning worker at a daycare, they will have to decide between work and religion. This militant and deviant expression of secularism fell short of simply banning beards. It is hypocritical, racist and self-contradictory.
The Parti Québécois claims it is doing so to maintain ‘religious neutrality.’ If that is the case then it should perhaps start by banning the province’s most overt religious symbol: its flag.
Also known as the Fleur-de-lis, Quebec’s flag, with its four fleurs-de-lis and a cross, is a beautiful expression of Christian symbolism. Historically associated with French Roman Catholic monarchs, the white fleur-de-lis symbolizes religious purity and chastity. The three petals are widely considered to represent the Holy Trinity; the band on the bottom represents Mary. Images of the Virgin Mary carrying the flower in her right hand are standard portrayals in Christian art.
Hypocrisy of the proposed legislation becomes evident when the more obvious issues that theoretically impact ‘religious neutrality’ are left unquestioned. Examples of this include the gigantic cross in the National Assembly, taking an oath on the Bible or Christmas trees. Will the government stop funding Catholic schools to attain this neutrality? What about funding for chaplaincy services? It appears Marois’ government is unable to distinguish between the concepts of a secular state and the inevitable interaction of that state between itself and religious agencies.
But the Quebec government is not oblivious to these facts. And that’s where the racist element comes in. Banning civil servants from wearing religious symbols doesn’t amend any supposed shortcomings of Quebec’s secularism. One can hold strong religious views without displaying it on their sleeves. In fact, there have been instance of justices refusing to marry same-sex couples because the justices were opposed to gay marriage, and they weren’t wearing a niqab when they did so. Claiming to champion secularism is simply PQ’s way to brazenly discriminate minority groups with hopes of gathering support through identity politics.
This proposed legislation is self-contradictory. It effectively creates two classes of citizens; one that is noble enough to become civil servants and one who is deprived of this privilege. The province is thus not ‘neutral’ by any standards – it’s openly saying that religious people ‘need not apply’. Even voicing such outrageous views creates an unhealthy segregated society. If religious minorities can’t participate in public life, how could they ever hope to blossom into our social fabric? What is even scarier is that the PQ is pushing this charter on the private sector as well, the textbook definition of systematic discrimination.
Parti Québécois is well aware that their proposals are so blatantly unconstitutional that they will be shot down by the courts. But that doesn’t matter as the objective of this political exercise has already been achieved, even if it meant having to stoop to an all-time low. The old game of identity politics has allowed the party to stir up enough support from its nationalist constituency to survive the next election. When the legislation is struck down, they’ll quickly turn around proclaim, ‘See how different we are from the rest of them, we do need our own country!’
One of the ironic aspects of this repulsive ‘Charter of Quebec Values’ is that it has indirectly helped exemplify values that most Canadians share. Editorials of all major newspapers are filled with condemnations of the charter. In a rather innovative spirit, Lakeridge Hospital in Oshawa, Ont., released a recruitment poster of a woman wearing a hijab stating, “We don’t care what’s on your head; we care what’s in it.” Politicians from all facets have openly opposed the Charter, from leader of the opposition, Thomas Mulcair, to Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau. The political leadership of Montreal, Quebec’s biggest city and economic hub, unanimously denounced the charter. Even within the PQ there were dissenters: MP Maria Mourani was expelled from caucus for her opposition to this edict.
Despite the lunacy of this entire episode, it’s important to resist the temptation to stereotype Quebec residents as intolerant and narrow-minded. During my short time there, I found the Quebecois to be a warm hearted and friendly people. Whether it was the affectionate ‘Bon Appétit’ from the lunch lady at Université Laval, the student protestors who gave me their iconic red square to wear or my gracious French teacher who put up with my non-existent language skills: I have nothing but good memories. Let’s hope this debacle is forgotten as a cheap political gimmick that has unfortunately brought unprecedented shame to Quebec, and the rest of Canada.
Graphic by Ben Barrett-Forrest / Multimedia Editor.