After a catastrophic structural collapse at a Bangladeshi garment factory, protesters flocked to a Joe Fresh store to demand better treatment for workers.
On Wednesday, protestors rallied in front of the Queen Street location of Joe Fresh to memorialize workers killed in the collapse of a garment factory in Bangladesh, where the Canadian clothing retailer made some of its products.
The crowd, estimated by organizers to be about 1,200 strong, was there to demand that Joe Fresh advocate better working conditions from its clothing suppliers. The protesters also condemned Loblaws, which owns the Joe Fresh label, for its reliance on cheap production to maximize profits.
Bangladeshi activists and students led the throng of cheering, flag-waving marchers through the garment district as they chanted things like, “Stop the death in Bangladesh!” and, “Long live solidarity!” Drums and loudspeakers echoed, and hockey fans at nearby bars turned away from the Toronto Maple Leafs playoff debut and gathered at windows and along sidewalks to witness the scene.
Farah Kabir of the anti-poverty group ActionAid told the gathering that the human cost of the factory tragedy is incalculable. “We don’t want compensation for the dead. Can you bring them back?” Kabir demanded. “We want equal rights, safety and security, the right to trade unions, the right to organize, and a living wage.”
After the gathering had observed a moment of silence for the hundreds of dead and injured workers, representatives of the Bangladeshi community attempted to deliver a letter to Loblaws and Joe Fresh staff inside the Queen West location, but no store personnel came forward. Instead, one of several uniformed security personnel blocking the building lobby cracked the door open and accepted the letter from student activist Khan Osman.
Osman expressed frustration at the cold reception from Loblaws. “I don’t know why they have not come out. They don’t have the courage, or whatever. I don’t know,” he told reporters after his encounter with security. Khan said activists will monitor the retailer’s response to their demands, including requests to source labour from unionized suppliers, and to collaborate with the Bangladeshi government to prosecute the owners of the collapsed factory. “We will continue the fight,” Osman vowed. Joe Fresh has already vowed, independently of this particular protest, to compensate the families of victims of the factory collapse.
The lively demonstration was one of a series of actions organized by Toronto’s labour, immigrant rights, and social justice groups for May Day, an international workers’ holiday. Syed Hussan of the Solidarity City Network expressed pride at the diversity of causes represented in the march. “We’re connecting community power, environmental justice power, workers’ rights power, and queer rights power into this massive show of force and celebration,” he said.
Participants initially gathered in front of Toronto City Hall to demand equity for all Torontonians, regardless of their immigration status. The group then marched to Bay Street, where Idle No More representatives led a round dance for indigenous solidarity and environmental stewardship. At another stop, on University Avenue, organizers demanded increases to Ontario’s minimum wage and social assistance rates.
Photo by Nadim Fetaih.