04/23/2014 12:37 EDT | Updated 06/23/2014 05:59 EDT

Canada Should Be a Social Responsibility Leader


One year ago this week, a girl named Tahmina went to work. By then, she'd been working for four years -- since she was 11 years old. Her job in a garment factory outside the Bangladeshi capital city of Dhaka was her family's main source of income.

Tahmina was too young to be working, and she certainly did not want to be working that day. She had seen cracks in the walls of her factory, and she had not wanted to enter the building. But when she voiced her concerns, she was slapped by her supervisor and told to get to work.

That morning, the Rana Plaza factory where Tahmina worked collapsed. She survived, but her supervisor and over 1,100 other workers were killed in one of the worst industrial disasters in history.

Canadians were rightly appalled by the Rana Plaza tragedy. For many of us, it drove home the connection between working conditions abroad and the clothes we wear here at home. On April 24, 2013, Canadians across the country were wearing clothes made by workers in Rana Plaza and equally unsafe factories worldwide. In the wake of the catastrophe, many of us have sought to learn more about the conditions in which our clothes are made.

We all want to know what we can do -- individually and collectively -- to prevent a future tragedy.

In Canada, we have both an opportunity and an obligation to push for safer working conditions in countries like Bangladesh, for people like Tahmina.

That is why, in the wake of last year's disaster, the NDP pushed for the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee to study the practices of Canadian companies manufacturing products in developing countries -- and to engage directly with those companies to help find practical solutions.

During the committee hearings, which will resume next week, industry representatives have made clear that they are keen to have the Canadian government support, facilitate, and regulate principles of social responsibility. Already, many Canadian companies are showing initiative in committing to international standards and increased accountability in their supply chains. The government needs to be responsible as well, and show leadership in laying the building blocks for a more just and sustainable world.

The Canadian government should promote and ensure social responsibility by Canadian companies operating abroad. We must send clear messages to the governments of Bangladesh and other countries that enforcement of proper labour, health and safety standards is not optional -- and that Canada is ready to support their efforts in this regard. In the particular case of Bangladesh, Canada should commit to providing long-term support, including assistance to assess and improve the structural and fire safety features of garment factories.

To date, more than 150 apparel companies from around the world have signed the legally binding Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, including many of the industry's leading brands. So far, Loblaws is the only Canadian company to sign this important agreement, which will help improve corporate transparency and consumer awareness through enforceable health and safety standards. The Canadian government needs to back this agreement, and encourage other Canadian companies to sign on.

There are a number of other steps that Canada can take immediately to encourage responsible practices by Canadian companies operating overseas, starting with a full review of Canadian corporate social responsibility policies. The government should work with business, labour, consumer and other organizations to bring Canada into line with international best practices on social responsibility.

Supply chain transparency is especially critical in order for consumers to be able to hold companies accountable. This is true not only in the garment sector, but also in areas such as the minerals trade, where my Bill C-486 would help ensure that minerals from Central Africa are not funding armed conflict. The government should also establish a clear and comprehensive responsible procurement policy for its own purchases.

These are simple but significant steps that the government could take immediately. Unfortunately, Conservatives have been missing in action on promoting, encouraging and leading the way on corporate social responsibility.

The government's corporate social responsibly strategy for the extractive sector has been a particular flop. The voluntary counsellor recruited to mediate disputes between companies and communities conducted only a few reviews before resigning last year. She had no authority to operate without the consent of the companies involved, and no ability to impose penalties for wrongdoing. I recently seconded NDP MP Ève Péclet's Bill C-584, which would establish an ombudsman's office for the extractive sector with enforcement powers.

Ultimately, social responsibility is grounded in a simple premise: no one should leave for work in the morning and not make it home because basic labour standards were not met. The strong response to the Rana Plaza tragedy showed that Canadians feel it is our responsibility to demand responsible, sustainable, and equitable economic and social engagement with people in developing countries.

Canadian companies, particularly in the extractive and manufacturing sectors, are among the best in the world. They are market leaders. It's time Canada became a social responsibility leader as well. We owe it to Tahmina.


Bangladesh Factory Collapse