by Paul Dewar
April 26, 2016
In 1995, 13-year-old Craig Kielburger confronted Jean Chrétien while the prime minister was on a trade mission in India, urging him to take action on child labour.
Following the confrontation, and continued revelations of child labour, there were industry-initiated actions to do better.
Some 18 years later, on April 24, 2013, an 11-year-old girl named Tahmina Akhter Sadia pleaded with her supervisor not to force her to go into the Rana Plaza factory on the outskirts of Dhaka, Bangladesh, where she worked 12-hour days, sewing for major clothing brands like Joe Fresh.
The day before, Tahmina had seen cracks in the walls and she didn’t think it was safe. As for her supervisor? He slapped her and made her go inside. Minutes later, just before 9 a.m., the Rana Plaza collapsed, burying thousands of workers. Tahmina would be trapped for five hours in a narrow space, but was eventually rescued. Her supervisor was killed, along with more than 1,000 other workers – mostly woman and girls.
Immediately afterwards, there were promises from the government of Bangladesh and industry to do better, and to work together to prevent another disaster. Industry has launched two initiatives. One is a legally binding accord on building safety; the other is a voluntary agreement.
So, three years on, what next? Do we wait until the next catastrophe, or should we do something different in dealing with globalized supply chains?
It is interesting that globalization often only refers to trade. The debate about globalization often centres around the need for clear rules and legally binding processes for investors. Often forgotten is the other side of globalization: the need for responsible behaviour, whether environmental standards, human rights or labour rights. These are often relegated to “side agreements,” or left to corporations to address through voluntary corporate social responsibility policies.
Why is it that when it comes to trade rules, we can find ways to include legally binding frameworks to promote commerce, but when it comes to the rights of children to go to school and avoid slave labour, we rely on voluntary non-binding solutions?
It’s long past time for governments to practice social responsibility in their trade policy.
The best way for governments to pursue responsible trade is to promote best practices, to reward those who exemplify these and punish those who do not. Trade officials should work with Canadian companies abroad to promote best practices, and champion those who practice due diligence with their suppliers. We could create a “Brand Canada” that would be a competitive advantage.
In the aftermath of the Rana Plaza catastrophe, I initiated hearings at the House of Commons Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Development. There are a number of concrete initiatives that the government can pursue:
- Review government cooperate social responsibility policies, with a focus on establishing strong and binding compliance mechanisms to enhance accountability through the supply chain in the ready-made garment industry;
- Provide long-term support to help Bangladesh and other countries to meet international standards, including financial and technical assistance to improve structural and fire safety standards;
- Engage with business, labour and consumer organizations to promote and implement safe and humane working conditions that adhere to international best practices in corporate social responsibility;
- Establish a responsible federal procurement system for clothing and other textiles; and
- Mandate and enforce public disclosure of corporate supply chains to ensure due diligence.
More than 20 years ago, Craig Kielburger challenged our government to act more responsibly, and consider the welfare of children along with the wealth of our nation.
Three years ago, 11-year-old Tahmina went to work under protest to put the shirts on our backs.
It’s time to consider both of their pleas. It’s time for responsible, responsive action.
Paul Dewar was NDP MP for Ottawa Centre for nine years and is currently a Fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute.