The Bangladesh collapse: Piecing it all together

The push for cheap clothes includes a small Montreal apparel firm

The horrific collapse of the Rana Plaza factory complex in Bangladesh last month, which left 1,127 apparel workers dead, has exposed the sprawling, fractured supply chains giant retailers rely on as they struggle to push down prices. Now details of the involvement of a small Montreal apparel firm have added to the puzzle.

Papers recovered from the rubble by the Bangladesh Centre for Worker Solidarity and provided to the New York Times show that Fame Jeans Inc. of Montreal placed an order for dark blue skinny jeans with Ether Tex Ltd., a factory on the building’s fifth floor. The papers list Wal-Mart as the end customer for, among other items, about 5,300 pairs of jeans at $4.40 each. What they also show is that companies in the industry sometimes have no idea where their clothes are made.

“We were surprised to learn that purchasing documents for an order placed 18 months ago in November 2011 were discovered in the Rana Plaza building following its collapse,” Fame Jeans CEO Alen Brandman said in a statement to Maclean’s, adding Ether Tex was not an “authorized” factory for either Wal-Mart or Fame Jeans. He blamed the order on a single sourcing manager acting “without approval.” Brandman told the Times Ether Tex did not make any more products for his company after that order, and that the rogue employee was fired. Brandman declined an interview request. However, emails contained in the recovered documents show two Fame Jeans employees knew about the order.

In an email, Wal-Mart said it wasn’t aware of the order, and that it “terminated” Fame Jeans as a supplier, though it did not specify when. At the time of the collapse Wal-Mart said an investigation found “no authorized” production at the building. Last week, Wal-Mart announced a new safety plan for its factories in Bangladesh, including inspections of all 279 locations. However, it did not commit to pay for any upgrades—a key component of an industry-wide agreement signed by more than a dozen retailers, including Loblaw Inc. As for Fame Jeans, Brandman said it has “rigorous and comprehensive safeguards” to ensure the factories it hires comply with its own ethical and safety standards and those of its clients.