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Pushing for safety

A case in court this week could force Canadian companies to ensure factories in developing countries are safe

This court case could change how Canadian companies make your clothes overseas

A case being heard in Ontario Superior Court this week could force Canadian companies to take better care of the people they pay to make their clothes in places like Bangladesh.

On April 24, 2013, more than 1,130 garment workers were killed and thousands more injured when the Rana Plaza factory collapsed in Bangladesh in what was the deadliest accidental collapse of a building in modern history. During the rescue effort, tags of popular brand Joe Fresh were found strewn through the rubble along with those of other popular clothing brands. The fourth anniversary of the tragedy is later this month.

Lawyers for the nearly 4,000 victims of Rana Plaza are in a Toronto courtroom today to argue that those victims should be able to launch a class action lawsuit against George Weston Limited and Loblaws, the parent companies of Joe Fresh, in Canada.

“This would be the first time a case is certified involving a Canadian corporation that has sourced goods from a developing country.”

If a judge agrees the lawsuit should be certified in Canada, the lawyers behind it say it would be a landmark decision — one that updates the law and becomes frequently cited — that would allow thousands of victims many miles away to sue the company for damages on Canadian soil.

“This would be the first time a case is certified involving a Canadian corporation that has sourced goods from a developing country, and it’ll be the first time a duty of care has been recognized from a major purchaser that effectively controls the workers and the safety of factories in developing countries,” Joel Rochon, the lawyer for the proposed class action, tells VICE News. “In that context we will be making new law in the event that the case is certified.”

If companies know they can be sued for a substantial amount of money on Canadian soil by workers in other countries, they will go the extra mile to ensure factories are safe before making their clothes and other products there, he argues. “We’re hoping that this case will in fact change the way that Canadian corporations conduct business in developing countries.”

Crowds gather at the collapsed Rana Plaza building as people rescue garment workers trapped in the rubble.

Rochon claims the company that owns Joe Fresh put workers in harm’s way without an effective safety net, and they had a responsibility to ensure the factory wasn’t a “death trap.” He says the company knew or ought to have known Rana Plaza was unsafe and should have done more to ensure the structural integrity of the building.

Loblaws wasn’t the only company that had ordered clothing from Rana Plaza — other major purchasers include US brands Walmart, The Children’s Place and J.C. Penney. But Rochon argues Loblaws had a large presence there, and that the company’s decisions related to the factory were made in Toronto, so the victims should be able to sue them on Canadian soil.

In a court motion, Loblaws argued it did not own or operate Rana Plaza, and Canada is not the appropriate jurisdiction for this case, so the class action should not be certified here.

Loblaws says it has paid $5 million in compensation and donations to victims of the factory collapse through the International Rana Plaza Donors Trust Fund, but Rochon calls it “a pittance when you consider the overall context.”

The Bangladesh case also adds to a growing number of cases brought against Canadian companies by people from other countries who are affected by their operations.

In a case involving HudBay Minerals, the Canadian mining company agreed to have lawsuits against it heard in Ontario Superior Court after Indigenous locals in Guatemala alleged its security guards were liable for the gang rapes of 11 women and the killing of a community activist near its mine. That was the first case of its kind in Canada.

In another case, former workers at a mine in Eritrea brought a claim against a mining company in Canada, arguing it had worked with the Eritrean government to establish the mine, and that human rights abuses, including torture and slavery, had occurred there. The British Columbia Supreme Court dismissed the mining company’s motion to strike, and the company wasn’t able to establish that Eritrea was the appropriate jurisdiction for a lawsuit. But the court ultimately didn’t certify the case as a class action.

Rochon’s firm tried to bring three victims of the collapse to Canada for the court case but their visas were denied last week.

The judge is expected to decide on the certification motion this spring or early summer.

Cover: A.M. Ahad/AP

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