Thoughts about the garment factory in Bangladesh

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Stories are coming out about the Bangladesh clothing factory that collapsed and various groups are taking aim at different companies whose clothing was being made there.  A Canadian group is drawing attention to Joe Fresh, a line of clothing sold at Loblaws grocery stores and the line “No $5 T-Shirt is worth this” is appearing on my facebook feed. I momentarily wonder whether I should be trying again to sew my own clothes or buy expensive union made or fair trade clothes I cannot afford. I think at least I buy second hand most of the time – the money isn’t going direct to the companies. But then I think that doesn’t really help. A few more or less purchases from them isn’t going to make a difference, and we cannot encourage everyone to boycott the companies unless there are good alternatives, and there aren’t.

Someone I respect wrote that we have to avoid taking responsibility for this as consumers. We are not at fault as consumers. It is the companies that refuse to be subject to independent inspection, that push for productivity over safety, that are at fault. I puzzle over that. Is not our economic system and the lure of cheap the result of us as individuals buying cheap? Or is it? Could it be that our push for cheap is the result of those in power who would squeeze as much of they money they can out of every purchase? Even when we buy an expensive piece of clothing we do not believe the money is going towards those making it, but towards the brand name and the corporate profits. If the money to the producer is going to be the same, then why not chase the cheap and in doing so minimize what the corporation gets?

Supposedly the workers were sent home the day before the collapse but told the next day that if they didn’t report to work despite the cracks, they would lose a months pay. We need to work to support their rights as workers. We need to support unionization at home and abroad.

I think if we are at fault for anything it is politically, as citizens. We have not insisted that our corporations behave honourably. We have legitimized the economic system that says corporations need not only make a profit but rising profits. We have supported the freedom of movement for capital so that companies can move their factories around, but not of people, so the people are stuck where they are.

 A CBC article says:

Labour groups argue the best way to clean up Bangladesh’s garment factories already is outlined in a nine-page safety proposal drawn up by Bangladeshi and international unions.

The plan would ditch government inspections, which are infrequent and easily subverted by corruption, and establish an independent inspectorate to oversee all factories in Bangladesh, with powers to shut down unsafe facilities as part of a legally binding contract signed by suppliers, customers and unions. The inspections would be funded by contributions from the companies of up to $500,000 per year.

The proposal was presented at a 2011 meeting in Dhaka attended by more than a dozen of the world’s largest clothing brands and retailers — including Wal-Mart, Gap and Swedish clothing giant H&M — but was rejected by the companies because it would be legally binding and costly.

Later in the article is says the Gap turned down the proposals because they didn’t want to open themselves up to lawsuits – a defense I find hilarious given that our government has opened itself up to so many lawsuits through Nafta’s Chapter 11 and is preparing to open itself up to more in the trade agreement with China. If the companies will not voluntarily agree to independent inspections and legally binding contracts, we must force them into it – politically. We must have political leaders willing to take action.

I’m not sure how but it seems to me the way must be through our idenities as citizens and workers, not just as consumers, or our power really is as limited as our money, and the problem seems to impossible. While our political power might seem useless too, perhaps the people marching in the streets of Bangladesh will help inspire us.

What, I wonder, is the responsibility of the local stores? Do our local Loblaws have any ability to demand their suppliers follow safety regulations?

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