Professor appears before Senate Standing Committee on Human Rights, talks about garment workers

Ananya Mukherjee-Reed head shot

Professor Ananya Mukherjee-Reed, chair of the Department of Political Science, appeared by invitation before the Senate Standing Committee on Human Rights on May 12 to talk about the condition of garment workers in the developing world and what role Canada can play.

It is imperative that action be taken immediately on this issue, Mukherjee-Reed told the standing committee. “A very large number of people are affected by our action or inaction. It is one of the most labour intensive sectors, employing tens of millions of workers worldwide.”

One of Mukherjee-Reed’s co-panellists, Jane Stewart, special representative to the United Nations and director of the International Labour Organization in New York, also spoke to the issue.

Ananya Mukherjee-Reed
Ananya Mukherjee-Reed

In her presentation, Mukherjee-Reed set the stage with some facts about the garment industry, including that the apparel exports market, globally, is valued at more than US$1 trillion. In 2011, Canada imported apparel worth about C$8.5 billion, with a 10 per cent growth between 2011 and 2012. Import penetration in this sector in Canada is 88 per cent and growing.

Some 75 to 80 per cent of garment workers are women. Indeed, historically, women in the garment sector have led women’s resistance to gender inequality, said Mukherjee-Reed. “We must do everything we can not to render these heroic resistances futile.” The Rana Plaza tragedy invokes painful memories of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York City on March 25, 1911.

“A lot of activism, social protest and organization by women emerged in the wake of that tragedy. Ironically, even though conditions improved in the West, sweatshops came to dominate the lives of workers in the developing world – and in the name of ‘development.’ This was not costless for workers in the developed world either. In countries like Canada, the decimation of domestic textiles industries have rendered many workers unemployed,” said Mukherjee-Reed.

The conditions of garment industry also affect the livelihood of many others. For example, the cotton textile sector impacts the livelihoods of cotton growers in India and in many parts of Africa. (Hundreds of thousands of cotton growers in India have committed suicide.)

“Vested interests continue to argue that ensuring wages, rights and safety standards will raise prices to levels that the average Canadian cannot afford. Yet, analysis of cost structures show that this need not necessarily be the case. If we begin from the position that safety and dignity of workers are non-negotiable, then any increase in costs can be shared fairly by all stakeholders. But for this to happen at a significant enough scale we need a citizens’ movement. That is the only way forward,” said Mukherjee-Reed.

Although this is a long process forward, Mukherjee-Reed outlined the following steps that could be taken immediately:

Supporting the Bangladesh Fire and Safety Accord

Canada needs to show much stronger support and public engagement with the accord, which is a legally binding, enforceable contract between retailers and Bangladeshi unions. In comparison to the Alliance (or other private initiative), this focuses more strongly on worker empowerment. There are now well-established bodies of research which show that voluntary initiatives are insufficient to deal with issues of this magnitude and complexity. While there has been a lot of pressure on Bangladesh to reform its regulations, the accord holds the retailers to their end of the bargain and seeks to ascertain that the required resources for reform are available to factory owners in Bangladesh.

Moving towards full disclosure and traceability for all federal procurement of apparel

As has already been promised following media reports, the Canadian government can expedite the requirements for disclosure and traceability for all federal procurement. It is reported that federal procurement of apparel amounts to at least $12 to $15 million a year. This could be an important beginning with a significant domino effect.

Examining duty-free access of imports from Bangladesh

The duty-free access of imports from Bangladesh currently has no conditions attached to it. It may be useful to examine the current situation and the cost and benefit of conditionality with respect to workers’ rights, women’s rights, wages and conditions of work (physical and otherwise).

Eschewing Export Processing Zone/Special Economic Zone policies

Experiences in the developing world call for a deep scrutiny of the export processing zones or special economic zones as “models” of “development.” These were set up to enable flexible labour law regimes which have hugely disadvantaged workers in country after country.

Supporting women-led ethical enterprise in the developing world

There are now a multitude of initiatives by people in the developing world, particularly women. These offer new forms of collective enterprise that ensure farmers and workers greater control over their work and their livelihoods. Canadian governments, businesses and civil society organizations can seek out and support such initiatives.

“There is an urgent need for a comprehensive study that examines possible policy alternatives for ethical procurement in the garment sector,” said Mukherjee-Reed. Such a study could examine best practices at the national, subnational and international levels by state and non-state actors and recommend policy and legislation. Such a study could also explore possible synergies between the Canada’s domestic apparel sector and its developing country counterparts around the common principle of ethical production.

“For, in the end, our challenge is not only ethical procurement, but ethical production where workers and small producers have control over their conditions of work and production,” Mukherjee-Reed told the standing committee members.