Loblaw Cos. executive chairman Galen G. Weston says the purveyor of Joe Fresh is embarking on a new program to improve worker safety in Bangladesh, but his competitors in the retail industry have so far shown a "deafening silence" in the wake of last week's deadly building collapse.
Loblaw, whose cheap-chic Joe Fresh clothing was produced in the building, pledged to place its own staff at factories abroad as well as develop a new building standard for any plant producing one of its private labels, which includes Joe Fresh and President's Choice.
But a grim-faced Mr. Weston said there's been a general lack of response from other apparel retailers in addressing the "unacceptable risk" that workers were exposed to in the building in Savar. The building also housed factories that produced about 30 other brands, according to the company's calculations.
Mr. Weston's plea for industry action underlines the logistical challenges of getting his company's people on the ground in Bangladesh and working together with global apparel rivals to ensure a safe workplace for their labour force while under pressure to keep costs down.
"I am troubled by a sequence of events, or management practices that saw fit to send apparel workers back into this building after it was declared dangerous," Mr. Weston said on Thursday at a hastily convened media conference just an hour before the company's annual meeting. "What role does industry play in propagating a manufacturing culture that would take such risks with people's lives?"
Joe Mimran, creative director of the Loblaw line that bears his first name, said the company works with 47 factories in Bangladesh and already sends its people every six months to the plants to check them out, while outside audit firms are there once a year. The company said it did not, however, inspect the integrity of buildings' structure, a complex matter not investigated by retail companies.
Still, Mr. Mimran acknowledged the company's role. "We must do a much better job ensuring the safety of workers producing our products in Bangladesh and around the world."
As many as 30 global apparel producers were having goods manufactured in the illegally constructed eight-story building, according to Mr. Weston. Loblaw and British-based Primark, both controlled by the wealthy Weston family, were among the few retailers to quickly acknowledge their ties to the building's factories. More retailers have since made statements on their connection to the Bangladesh building.
Retailers are coming to grips with the tough task of working together on their supply chain and production – a secretive and sensitive area that ties into the development and design of their styles – to protect the low-paid workers who produce the clothing.
"The fundamental issue is whether the individual brands and retailers are willing to make a binding commitment to do things that are necessary to actually put an end to these disasters," said Scott Nova, executive director of the Worker Rights Consortium based in Washington, D.C.
The Children's Place has said it had clothing produced in the building, but not at the time of the collapse. It said in a statement late Wednesday that its "primary concern is getting financial aid and other services to the impacted people in Savar in a timely manner."
Benneton Group at first denied that any of its suppliers were housed in the building, then later said it received a shipment of goods made in the factory and then removed the supplier from its list since it didn't meet standards, according to reports.
On Monday, Loblaw and Primark said they would contribute to a relief fund for victims and their families to provide support now and in the future. Other retailers, including Wal-Mart Stores Inc., are starting to come forward with pledges of aid, including for Bangladesh factory managers to be trained in fire safety.
On Thursday, Mr. Weston pledged to establish a new standard at Loblaw that all its private label products, including Joe Fresh and President's Choice, "must be made in facilities that respect local construction and building codes."
And he said the company will have "our own Loblaw people on the ground" " to ensure that its new standard is enforced with its suppliers. "They will report directly to us, Canadian to Canadian," Mr. Weston told shareholders. "They will ensure product brought to Canada was produced in an environment that reflects Canadian values."
Loblaw has "robust" social responsibility rules and regular third-party audits done of its factories, and none of the reports suggested a problem with the destroyed building, he said. It is sending four of its senior supply chain executives to Bangladesh early next week to investigate the situation.
"It is a very robust system but it needs to be even more robust, as it relates to Bangladesh," said Mr. Mimran, making his first public comments on the building collapse since it occurred on April 24.
Bangladesh's garment companies reopened Thursday and millions of staff returned to production lines around the capital of Dhaka and rushed to complete delayed orders for their Western customers after an eight-day shutdown caused by the deaths of at least 433 people in a building collapse.
Rescuers found more bodies in the concrete debris of the collapsed garment factory building on Thursday, and authorities said it may take another five days to clear the rubble. Police said 149 are still missing in what has become the worst disaster for Bangladesh's $20-billion-a-year garment industry.
The mayor of Savar was suspended Thursday for approving and then failing to shut down the Rana Plaza. Mohammad Refayet Ullah was suspended because his office had approved the eight-storey building, which housed at least five factories, and then failed to take action when cracks appeared in its structure a day before the tragedy, the country's local government secretary said. Mr. Ullah, mayor for the past 14 years, is the highest official to be suspended for the country's worst industrial disaster.
The European Union is considering trade action against Bangladesh, which has preferential access to EU markets for its garments, to pressure Dhaka to improve safety standards after a building collapse killed more than 400 workers. Duty-free access offered by Western countries, and low wages, have turned Bangladesh's garment exports into a $19-billion-a-year industry, with 60 percent of clothes going to Europe.Any action by the EU on Bangladesh's duty-free and quota-free access would require the agreement of all member states and could take more than a year to implement