Canadian grocery chain Loblaw has announced that it will compensate the families of victims of the factory collapse that occurred this past May in Bangladesh’s Rana Plaza. The building housed a number of garment factories, including some that made garments for the Canadian retailer’s Joe Fresh line of clothing.
Some will worry that this is a case of too little, too late. And certainly the “too late” part is correct. Compensation is always a distant second best when compared to avoiding deaths in the first place. Whether or not the compensation is “too little” is subject to debate. It’s not clear that Loblaw (or any company) bears direct responsibility for the behaviour of the companies from which it buys services—though certainly the case is stronger where the buyer is a highly-capable multi-billion-dollar company buying from smaller, less-capable companies operating in an under-regulated environment.
Either way, it’s hard not to admire the company for stepping up and assuming responsibility. And the money will surely be a godsend to the families of the victims. But the real benefit of the compensation scheme may well lie in its capacity to reassure Canadians (and other Westerners) that the company cares, and that things are going to get better in Bangladesh, so that we can all keep buying goods made there. Because that’s what Bangladesh truly needs.
But on the other hand I continue to worry about Bangladeshi exceptionalism—that is, that all the attention being lavished on the garment industry in Bangladesh will mean little attention gets paid to parallel problems in places like Malaysia, Vietnam, Pakistan, China, and a number of African countries. There are surely factories in many developing countries that are ‘Rana Plazas’ just waiting to happen. It’s not clear just what is being done about those.
Finally, many will be asking what still needs changing. Two things come to mind. The first is that companies like Loblaw need to keep getting better at vetting suppliers, in order to weed out the bad ones. (This, of course, is much harder than it sounds.) The second is that Canadians and other Western consumers need to change the way they think about the issue. They need to recognize that Bangladesh is not Canada, and doesn’t have the luxury of North American-style labour standards. They will surely get there, but it will be a long, slow climb.
Most important is that this tragic series of events has focused the world’s attention on an important set of issues. But the challenge lies in harnessing that attention and seeking out reasoned discussion, rather than knee-jerk reactions.
Chris MacDonald is Director of the Jim Pattison Ethical Leadership Education & Research Program at the Ted Rogers School of Management.