TORONTO - As rescuers continued to pull corpses and survivors from the rubble of a collapsed garment factory in Bangladesh, some consumers in Canada were shocked to learn that items from their favourite brands were made there.
The building collapsed Wednesday killing at least 290 people, many of them poorly paid workers who were forced to keep producing clothes even after police ordered an evacuation due to deep, visible cracks in the walls.
Canadian clothing line Joe Fresh was among the customers of the garment factories operating in the building.
Natalie Erb, 24, shops at Joe Fresh at least once a week for everything from yoga clothes to office wear, she said. The news out of Bangladesh has the loyal customer disturbed about her purchases.
"To be honest, I had never really done much research into where Joe Fresh manufactures their clothing, but knowing what I do now, I'm hugely disappointed in the company," said the Halifax woman.
"I don't know if I'll be buying from the line any time soon, or ever again for that matter."
Joe Fresh parent company Loblaw (TSX:L) released a statement Thursday saying some Joe Fresh items were made in the factory and offered its condolences to the victims and their families.
The company said it requires vendors to ensure products are being manufactured in a socially responsible way, prohibiting child harassment, abuse and forced labour, as well as ensuring fair pay, benefits and health and safety standards.
Spokeswoman Julija Hunter said the standards are audited on a regular basis and align with those of the industry around the world.
"However, in light of the recent tragedies in Bangladesh we recognize that these measures do not address the issue of building construction or integrity," she said in a statement.
Loblaw is in the process of reaching out to the Retail Council of Canada, other retailers and government to establish a review to address Bangladesh's approach to factory standards, Hunter said.
"We don't have all the answers today," she wrote. "But we are committed to taking the necessary steps to drive change, and find better solutions to ensure safe working conditions for production facilities with which we do business."
NDP foreign affairs critic Paul Dewar said most Canadians were shocked when they saw the working conditions in Bangladesh.
"We have trade offices and missions all over the world and we should be using those assets we have to ensure that when it comes to Canadian companies engaged overseas, that there's basic labour standards... actually being followed," he said.
Worker Rights Consortium, a labour-rights monitoring organization, first circulated a photo of a Joe Fresh label amid the rubble in Bangladesh. The country is the "worst place in the world for apparel workers," said the group's executive director.
But it's certainly not alone, said Scott Nova, and that should come as no surprise to no one.
"It has been well known for many years that most of the apparel bought and worn by people in Canada and the U.S. and Europe is made in developing countries where the industries are defined by low wages and poor working conditions," he said from Washington, D.C.
"You can try to buy stuff that's made in Canada or made in the U.S., you can buy from a handful of niche brands that generally produce under better conditions, but 99.9 per cent of the apparel that's offered for sale to consumers is made in sweatshops."
Everyone wants high-quality products at a good price, said Dara O'Rourke, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley and co-founder of GoodGuide, an online resource that gives products health, environmental and ethical ratings. But there are costs to those low prices, he said.
"If you walk into a Joe Fresh or Wal-Mart or a Sears or a Target or whatever and you see a polo shirt and it's $5.99...the next thought should be: 'What is the company doing to lower their cost of production so much? Are they outsourcing the responsibility on treating workers fairly? Are they outsourcing and externalizing the environmental costs of this?'" he said.
Many shoppers interviewed Thursday outside a Joe Fresh store in Toronto said even if they wanted to only buy clothing manufactured in Canada, they wouldn't necessarily have the means to do so.
"I feel terrible, like most people do, I think," said Katrina Gataveckas, 26. "I find that I don't have the money right now to shop for clothing at stores where they actually do have good working conditions."
In addition to money, her friend Jaclyn van Vlymen, 25, said it would take a lot more time to research the origins of any clothing she wanted to buy.
"I think it probably will require a lot more consideration on the consumer's part, but ultimately you're shopping for the season's trend and maybe you don't really care," she said. "Sad, isn't it?"
Among the clients of garment makers in the building were The Children's Place and Dress Barn, Britain's Primark, Spain's Mango, Italy's Benetton and Wal-Mart.
Primark acknowledged it was using a factory in Rana Plaza, but many other retailers distanced themselves from the disaster, saying they were not involved with the factories at the time of the collapse or had not recently ordered garments from them.
Wal-Mart said it was investigating, and Mango said it had only discussed production of a test sample of clothing with one of the factories.
The disaster in Bangladesh is the worst ever for the country's booming and powerful garment industry, surpassing a fire five months ago that killed 112 people and brought widespread pledges to improve the country's worker-safety standards.
Instead, very little has changed in Bangladesh, home to about 4,000 garment workers whose wages are among the lowest in the world.
The country's minimum wage is now the equivalent of about $38 a month.
"There is a very close connection between sub-poverty wages and the lax regulation that perpetuates poor working conditions and the ability of factories to offer the extremely low prices that brands and retailers crave," Nova said.
"Indeed it is the relentless drive of North American and European brands and retailers for ever-lower prices and ever-faster delivery times that gives these factories overwhelming incentives to operate unsafely."
— with files from The Associated Press