Tuesday 14 May 2013

Note to Loblaw and Joe Fresh: if you can find the Canadian consumer, you can find the Bangladeshi worker

Reshma: Galen Sr. can afford 17.1 million years of her labour
Modern capitalism is very effective. It can locate customers with pinpoint accuracy. It knows, for example, how to find a small-town girl to encourage her to buy a T-shirt. In Canada, a clothing division of the supermarket chain Loblaw, called Joe Fresh, will extend significant time and resources on marketing and advertising, including social media campaigns, to find that girl. In fact, adult Canadians go to work every day, either within Joe Fresh or the advertising agencies that Joe Fresh employs, doing one thing and one thing only: busting their butts to target and reach that kid. Millions of dollars are spent on the effort.

As well, Joe Fresh is very skilled at making certain that they are accountable for all product materials. If your shirt says that it is 65% cotton, 30% polyester, and 5% rayon, then that is exactly what it is. This is because Canada’s Textile Labelling Act requires this by law. The Act also asserts that each clothing label must show “the identity of the person by or for whom the consumer textile article was manufactured or made”, but has no requirement to reveal who actually made it. Nonetheless, as part of its best practices to maximize profitability, Joe Fresh knows what its production, transport, and overhead costs are to the penny – even though Canada no longer uses the penny.
Rana Plaza: mystery building, mystery workers

These abilities exist in the context of highly sophisticated supply chain analytics that handle seasonal and product roll-overs with remarkable frequency and efficiency. They also exist at a time in human history where location-based technologies, including RFID, can track materials 24/7, and where science has advanced to the point where nano-technologies are becoming a reality.

In other words, we can find valuable customers, because we are motivated, and we can find valuable things, because we are motivated, but when it comes to finding low-value workers like those killed in the Rana Plaza collapse in Bangladesh....Nope. When that happens, suddenly we enter a mysterious, medieval era, where “fast fashion” – the very phenomenon that builds these capabilities – is to blame, where conjurers subcontract, and where webs of corruption make it physically impossible to locate the teenage girls making the clothes. Weird. We know exactly what the clothes are made off – after all, we design them – and we know exactly where they are going – well, those folks are paying – but when it comes to the workers, everything becomes maddeningly complex and strange. Spooky!

This is complete bullshit. Back in 2007, Loblaw made a strategic choice to focus on Joe Fresh, and in doing so put a lot of money into rationalizing its supply chain. The year before, consulting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP specifically reported that, regarding Canadians retailers’ use of Asian facilities with lower labour costs, “Failure to recognize these opportunities likely will put suppliers at a competitive disadvantage.” Nowhere is there any mention that awareness of labour conditions should be a required business practice. At that time Loblaw was making major investments in its IT infrastructure. The money, clearly, was there to get products to market cheaply.

The missing
Then in 2011 Loblaw president Allan Leighton said “We have done finance, done some of the back office, [and] we are now working into merchandising and it is only when the whole thing is completely into the stores that you get all of the benefits.”  Joe Mimran, the creator of the Joe Fresh line, was “about three-quarters done on a redesign of the general merchandise business,” according to the National Post.

None of these efforts involved taking a close look at working conditions in Bangladesh, which has appeal to Canadian retailers because of favourable tariff structures and cheap labour. Ethical trading initiatives, to date, have had little impact in the country, where the rate of industrial deaths has been skyrocketing.

It doesn’t help that companies lie. Benetton said that none of its products were made in the Rana Plaza, but when Benetton garments were found in the rubble, the company back-tracked and said that there was a “a one-time order” and that the subcontractor had been removed from its supplier list. This too was a lie: companies active in the Rana Plaza have listed Benetton as a client.

Pundits have said that a boycott will only hurt the workers, and that the standard of living of the average Bangladeshi has risen due to investments by the garment industry. Depoliticized, cost-conscious consumers aren’t about to change their habits. But what about the “intellectual authors” of the crime? What about the people who profit? Galen G Weston, the executive chairman of Loblaw, wants to make amends, and has announced that his company will compensate victims.

Galen Jr. - "G2" - the scion who Reshma works for
Mr. Weston, however, will pay no price. The Weston family’s net worth is $7.8 billion. In Bangladesh, garment workers average $38 a month – a wage-rate hard won after protests in 2010 (post Rana Plaza Bangladesh has promised another increase and the right for garment workers to form unions, a pledge surely to be foiled by corrupt and violent factory owners). An average worker in Bangladesh, therefore, makes $456 dollars a year. If Mr. Weston were to take his family’s wealth and invest it human labour in Bangladesh, he could afford over 17.1 million years of work.

Think about that. Mr. Weston is described as a great “philanthropist”, yet he evidently belongs to a family of chisellers who drive nickels off the backs of the impoverished in order to enhance their obscene wealth. Loblaw now claims that it will be a “force for good” in Bangladesh, and that its own people will conduct factory assessments. But you can be sure Mr. Weston will not set foot on a factory floor. You can be sure too that, if inspections raise costs, manufacturing will simply shift to Cambodia, Vietnam, or other high-risk, low wage countries with little or no protection for workers’ rights.

Obviously, more can be done. So far, not one company has signed up for a building safety action plan, as recommended by trade unions. Commitments to random audits, such as those promised by Loblaw and others, will only ensure that abuses continue.

This problem will not be fixed any time soon. Hopefully, however, people will not be fooled when it happens again, and when garment brands lie, saying “we had no idea”. Loblaw apparently can find teenagers in Canada when they are shopping – in fact it will go to great lengths to do so – but had no idea that another teenager, one Reshma Begum, was working in life threatening conditions to make the very products they sell.

Reshma was found, alive, after being trapped for 17 days. It took a building collapse for Loblaw to find her, and learn her name. We know this because she lived. And the 1,127 dead? They remain nameless, as before, as always, the great mass of mystery workers at the punishing end of the Joe Fresh supply chain.

(TE Wilson is the author of Mezcalero, a Detective Sánchez novel.)

Twitter: @TimothyEWilson
Email: lapoliticaeslapolitica [at] gmail [dot] com

N.B.: If you are having difficulty submitting to the e-mail feed at the top of this page, press "enter" on your keyboard instead of the "submit" button.

1 comment:

  1. "The consumption of labour-power is completed, as in the case of every other commodity, outside the limits of the market or of the sphere of circulation. Accompanied by Mr. Moneybags and by the possessor of labour-power, we therefore take leave for a time of this noisy sphere, where everything takes place on the surface and in view of all men, and follow them both into the hidden abode of production, on whose threshold there stares us in the face “No admittance except on business.” Here we shall see, not only how capital produces, but how capital is produced. We shall at last force the secret of profit making."
    Capital Vol 1, Chapter 6.