Since my original posting on the evening of May 8, there’s been yet another factory fire in Bangladesh, and the death toll in the Rana Plaza garment factory collapse now stands at more than 900 people. 900 lives sacrificed on the altar of fashion and profits, more than 1,000 counting those killed in other garment factory disasters in Bangladesh since last November.
“When I buy clothes, frankly, I don’t think of where they came from,” was one smiling shopper’s comment on a video clip that featured shoppers’ reactions to the garment factory disaster. I wonder if he’d think more about it if every store maniken and every fashion advertisement displayed this photo from the Bangladesh rubble. The story behind the photo is searing. The fashionista set loves to speak pretentiously in phrases like, “I’m wearing Benetton.” I wonder what would happen if the red carpet celebrities said, instead, “I’m wearing Death.” Not pretty, but pretty accurate. (Note: Benetton’s CEO has confirmed that some of its garments were made at the Rana Plaza factory.)
It’s no secret that modern life divorces consumers from the ugly realities of the production of all that we consume, whether Big Macs or Nikes or Disneyland T-shirts. More than a century ago, Upton Sinclair told us all we need to know about corruption in the food industry and the inhuman conditions of factory workers in The Jungle. Food safety and work conditions in some of the world improved through the 20th Century, but by the turn of the new century, technology made it possible for gigantic multinational corporations to outsource production of everything from LCD screens to fresh-picked strawberries to those places in the global village where labor is cheap and regulations that might cut profits are few. The most advanced toys of the First World — iPhones and iPads and Androids and other tech gizmos —- are produced by Third World workers suffering primitive oppressive conditions in factories in China and other places where the master corporations can squeeze wages to get the most profits.
We cannot choose to remain so willfully, blissfully ignorant of the human suffering that our comforts, foods and technologies require for their production. Paying attention to the inhumane conditions that workers suffer to ensure high profits for certain companies is a serious moral issue. Last week, among many others, Pope Francis condemned the low wages and unsafe conditions in workplaces like Bangladesh as “slave labour” and called for renewed protection for the rights of workers.
The factory collapse was the latest in a string of disasters in the Bangladesh garment factory industry in the last twelve months. A terrible fire killed 112 sweatshop workers in another factory last fall. Last week’s Rana Plaza disaster brought the usual self-protective denials and obfuscations from the big companies whose labels were found all over the collapsed building. Now some companies who deny having any clothes on the machines at Rana Plaza are indicating that they will leave Bangladesh and look for manufacturing sites elsewhere. This solves nothing, of course. The failure of the Wal-Marts, J.C. Penneys, Bennetons, Disneys and other major names associated with these sweatshops to invest in worker safety, improved factory conditions, safer machinery and higher wages will not be atoned for if they simply move their unjust practices to other sweatshops while leaving the people of Bangladesh even more deeply impoverished and traumatized.
The best thing the big retailers and fashion labels could do is to rebuild the factory safely, pay fair and just compensation to the families who have suffered grievous losses, and continue the work with better wages and improved safety conditions. Taking jobs out of Bangladesh is not the solution; investing in a more just system of production is the result a moral company should desire.
Sadly, the people of Bangladesh are powerless to address this conundrum. The real power is in the First World consumers, particularly those in the United States and Europe, whose money fuels the profit margins. Imagine what would happen if we agreed to stop wearing Death. Insisting on moral accountability from our favorite retailers and fashion labels is a power we consumers can exercise every time we think about swiping those plastic cards that make a few big names very, very rich. The least they can do, in return, is protect the lives and respect the rights of the people whose hands sewed that popular, powerful name onto the collar or out on the sleeve for all to admire.