Will the Canadian government actually switch to ethically produced uniforms?

maquiladora in Mexico
© Wikipedia -- A 'maquiladora' (clothing factory) in Mexico

A special task force has been set up, but whether the talk and research turns into action is another matter.

One positive outcome from the Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh, nearly two years ago, is that a growing number of people have begun questioning where their clothes come from, who makes them, and under what conditions.

Even the Canadian Federal Government has finally bowed to public pressure and put together a special task force that, according to The Star, will research “where and what kind of factories the garments are manufactured in” and then recommend options “to enhance procurement practices with regard to ethical sourcing of apparel.”

Public Works and Government Services is the department responsible for buying uniforms for a broad range of federal services, including the Canadian Armed Forces, Canada Border Services Agencies, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), Parks Canada, Correctional Services Canada, and the Department of Fisheries, etc. If a contract is worth more than $25,000 it is administered by Public Works.

Due to security concerns, clothing made for the RCMP and Department of National Defence must be made in Canada. As a result, 98 percent of the $677 million spent on clothing in the past five years has stayed within the country; but The Star reports that other departments do not face the same sourcing restrictions. They can get their uniforms through contractors that source in countries such as Bangladesh, Cambodia, Mexico, China, Thailand, Taiwan, Pakistan, and Vietnam – all of which have garment industries with questionable safety and workers’ rights standards.

Starting last year, Public Works required all contractors to state the country of origin of clothes being purchased. While that’s a step in the right direction, it’s a rather weak solution on its own. Some contractors may not comply; a contract with R Nicholls, one of the biggest suppliers of Canadian federal uniforms, stated “not relevant” under the heading “subcontractors.” Then there’s the obvious issue that simply stating the country of origin says little to nothing about the actual conditions of a particular factory:

“Within a country, you could have a good factory right down the road from a factory that’s a death trap, so what does the country disclosure tell you?” says Kevin Thomas, a workers’ rights activist interviewed by The Star.

It remains to be seen what the federal task force will do with the results of its research. It’s probably a good sign that there was a federal representative who attended the World Ethical Apparel Roundtable that I went to last November, and he had plenty of questions about supply chain transparency. But whether those words get turned into actions is another matter, and one that has many worker rights activists suspicious.

Bob Jeffcott of the Maquila Solidarity Network in Toronto wonders why the government’s task force has yet to consult with the public, such as teacher organizations, trade unions, and labour organizations:

“There is no indication [the government] is consulting with anyone else but companies. When asked, companies will tell you that, ‘Yes, our suppliers are ethical.’ But I don’t think that is very effective.”

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