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Fresh Blood

Joe Fresh Shut Down During Mayday protest

by Geordie Gwalgen Dent

Joe Fresh Window Display PHOTO Sharmeen Khan
Joe Fresh Window Display PHOTO Sharmeen Khan
Police protect Joe Fresh and Loblaws PHOTO Sharmeen Khan
Police protect Joe Fresh and Loblaws PHOTO Sharmeen Khan

Toronto - Joe Fresh and Loblaws faced a backlash from their sweatshop labour practices today as May Day protests forced them to close a location in downtown Toronto.

On a day when Loblaws announced a 40% increase in their profit, workers at the Rana Paza factory site in Savar, Bangladesh announced an updated death-count of over 400 people.

Last week, garment workers in the Rana Plaza were killed as the factory collapsed.  In an interview with Democracy Now!, Kalpona Akter, the Executive Director of the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity, noted that factory employees were forced to return to work, even after cracks appeared in the foundation and workers fled.  "On the Wednesday morning, they were forced to go inside the factory, and someone with a hand mic said, "One crack doesn’t matter. The factory will be—there will be nothing happen,"  she said.

Another 1,000 are still missing in the rubble. Bangladeshi workers are paid less than $3/day and work in dangerous conditions making cheap clothes for companies, mostly in Western countries.  There have been massive protests in Banlgadesh including major May Day rallies.  Hundreds of students in Bangladesh have donated blood in Savar after doctors appealed for help.

Several major garment producers have been identified as having garments made in the factory including Joe Fresh (a Canadian brand from Loblaws), Cato, Chldren's Place, Benetton, Primark and Mango.
In solidarity, Toronto's May Day march saw over 1200 people demonstrate in front of the Queen Street Loblaws location.  

"Joe Fresh and the the other companies have to take responsibility," said Farah Kabir of Action Aid, a group that was part of 'Toronto Community Organizers of the Emergency Action to Support Bangladeshi Workers Killed Making Clothes for Joe Fresh'.  "Savar could have been prevented.  This is caused by the constant demand for low cost production.  Toronto!  Hold your companies responsible for their investments.  Invest in safety and security!"

Organizers noted that worker security and safety, along with the right to organize unions, are severely lacking in Bangladesh.  They called upon Loblaws and other companies to identify the owners of the garment factories.   

Organizers tried to present a letter to the management of the Loblaws store but management refused to accept it.   The store was under lockdown several hours before the protest arrived with many officers expressing concern about the smashing of windows.  Officers were overheard recommending the "'Joe Fresh' sign be covered with cardboard.

Passersby had mixed feelings about the protest.  Kate, a frequent shopper at Joe Fresh, felt conflicted: "On one hand I feel guilty about what happened [at the factory] while at the same time loving what they do with their clothes."  Kate noted that Loblaws took "immediate responsibility" by agreeing to provide compensation to the families of the affected workers, something that other companies had not done. (Editors Note: Loblaws only offered compensation after Reuters reported finding their labels in the rubble of the factory.)

Also speaking on Democracy Now!,  Charles Kernaghan, Director of the Institute for Global Labour and Human Rights, outlined what conditions are like for garment workers in Bangladesh. 

"Well, Bangladesh now is the second-largest garment exporter in the world, right after China. And as a matter of fact, the Chinese garment factories are moving to Bangladesh because of the low wages, 14 cents an hour up to about 24 cents an hour. The workers are hard-working; they work 14 hours a day. They’ll work often seven days a week. There are no unions with collective contracts.  And the labels, you know, like a Wal-Mart, you know, maybe they’ll pay nine cents for a garment. I mean, that’s all they care about."

During the protest, Kabir asked why companies like Loblaws couldn't pay more.  "When you charge $40 for a t-shirt, why can't you pay an extra 10 cents for safety and security for workers? "

Vijay Prishad, writing in Counterpunch, related the situation in Savar to garment workers struggles in early-twentieth century North America:

"It is well worth mentioning that the death toll in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York City of 1911 was one hundred and forty six. The death toll here is already twice that. This “accident” comes five months (November 24, 2012) after the Tazreen garment factory fire that killed at least one hundred and twelve workers.

"The list of “accidents” is long and painful. In April 2005, a garment factory in Savar collapsed, killing seventy-five workers. In February 2006, another factory collapsed in Dhaka, killing eighteen. In June 2010, a building collapsed in Dhaka, killing twenty-five."

Rescue efforts in Savar continue.

Check out more TMC coverage of Mayday in Toronto here.


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