The Savar tragedy is now over and we can forget the 1,127 who were, effectively, forced to die in a building illegally constructed and (patently obvious to all who were there) unsafe to work in even the day before. In Bangladesh the BNP and Jamaat have gone back to business as usual causing havoc with their hartals and the cyclone Masahen has caused considerable damage and loss of life despite being much weaker than feared and quickly losing power as it hit the Bangladesh coastline.
Retailers all over the world must be breathing sighs of relief. This is old news now – business can resume as normal.
What’s more, all the well-meaning – but rather foolish – ideas can now be put forth and accepted by those (even more foolish) in power who just want the world to see they are doing something but would really rather the whole thing could go away.
Twitter and Facebook were abuzz with the Savar tragedy until other things overtook. Typically Western thinking, after the initial shock of the tragedy, soon led the conversations to “we have to fix this”.
I’m not totally against that – though I am always cautious when the West sticks its nose in. The first ones who need to ‘fix this’ are the Bangladeshis themselves – especially those in Government. Nevertheless, I am more concerned with the solution the West continually offers in all situations of need: namely “we need to throw money at this”.
Again, I’m not against this in some respects. I long for the day the West hands over an equal share over its wealth to the Asian countries from which much of it came originally. But that is a case of returning what was rightfully Asia’s in the first place rather than offering charity or muscling in with stolen money to later claim “we solved what the Asians couldn’t do for themselves” – perhaps with a condescending “bless ’em” under our breath or written invisibly between the lines.
“Those who had the courage…were told “no work, no pay””
Several of the major Western retailers have signed agreements to invest more and take responsibility for the safety and health of the young and vulnerable girls who work for factories like that in Savar in their millions. But this agreement is limited and many have baulked at the idea of such legal commitment. Others have pulled out of the country altogether, effectively washing their hands of the whole affair.
Meanwhile, some garment factories have shut down amid more structural fears. Even more closed because the workers – in their anger and grief – dared to protest about their plight at the hands of unscrupulous factory owners. Those who had the courage to strike and demonstrate were told, quite simply, “no work, no pay”. This is simply something most of the women cannot afford. The message is clear: Nothing has changed; shut up and work.
One of the most bizarre of all the opinions and news stories I’ve read this week has been the suggestion from the normally impressively sane Professor Muhammad Yunus, Nobel Prize winner. Yunus has suggest that just an extra $0.50 on each item of Bangladesh-made clothing sold would be enough to solve the issue of worker safety. According to the Huffington Post Yunus said:
“[W]ith that additional $0.50, then we could resolve most of the problems faced by the workers — their physical safety, social safety, individual safety, work environment, pensions, healthcare, housing, their children’s health, education, childcare, retirement, old age, travel could all be taken care of through this Trust,”
The money would go through a Trust – one Yunus would control, his critics point out. I have the greatest respect for this man who has done so much for his country, but this plan is madness and misses the point as everyone else seems to be too. I’m not sure if we should cut Yunus some slack as an economist who will always see the solution as being about money or condemnation as the one Bangladeshi who really should know better.
Similarly, the British newspaper, The Times has suggested that “if Bangladesh workers wages were doubled it would only cost us an extra 2p per t-shirt”. I reply with the old expression “the road to Hell is paved with good intentions”. It is not that Yunus, The Times or any of the other political commentators are saying bad things nor that such ideas couldn’t give, at least, some help. It’s the fact that they miss the point so badly that they could actually make things a lot worse.
As an observer close to what happens in Bangladesh – indeed I was just a few miles away when the nine-storey factory building collapsed in Savar – but also keeping an eye on the international reaction to what happens, I’m in a good position to evaluate both the Western reaction and the Bangladeshi one. I don’t claim great expertise and can only speak from my experience and understanding but, nevertheless, I think some things are not being said that need saying.
By throwing money at the problem and by signing agreements to ‘improve health and safety’ and other similar plans, what we miss is the need for the West to commit to being responsible for the welfare and treatment of the Garment Industry girls.
James Surowiecki seems to agree when he wrote on Alal o dulal:
“Just as most Western consumers seem reluctant to pay more for T-shirts, most Western companies have been reluctant to take real responsibility for what happens on their suppliers’ factory floors.”
“industry matters; the Garment girls don’t”
There are more than 2.5 million girls working in the Garment industry in Bangladesh producing 76% of the country’s total exports. It is worth 13% of the total Gross Domestic Product which, in 2011, came to 111.9 billion USD (Source: World Bank). Bangladesh can’t afford to lose this industry. It’s people – with at least one third living in extreme poverty – can afford it still less.
Yet, two weeks after the collapse at Savar, a fire at another garment factory killed eight more girls. Since 2005, at least 1,800 people have been killed in factory fires and building collapses in Bangladesh. This figure, obtained from The Guardian, is too high. Last November we watched, as a nation, as they found the charred remains of 112 workers burned to death in another illegally built factory. The workers were trapped in the building as it burned.
Clearly, the industry matters; the Garment girls don’t.
Life is cheap for the women who work in this industry. they are at the scrap end of social pile in a country that is still fighting over whether they should be allowed out in public at all, let alone allowed to work. Despite the huge profits they make for the owners of the factories and the retail companies internationally who commission their work, these girls frequently can’t complain about their conditions without expecting a beating and take home around $36 a month according to some sources. Be grateful, society tells them, for being allowed to earn anything at all.
“women work in fear and under submission”
What these women need, more than anything else, is a voice.
This is where the West can usefully help. Pressure from the retailers for the Government to uphold its own laws regarding women’s rights and for factory owners to safeguard those rights without fear of reprisal for the women exercising them is essential. For now, in many of the factories, women work in fear and under submission. While the owners have their way you can guarantee money thrown their direction will simply line their pockets all the more and international agents assessing the working conditions on behalf of the retailers will simply see what the owners want them to see. But it will be a far cry from the truth.
Of course, not all factories are bad, not all owners corrupt. In fact, since the Savar trouble engineers have been going around assessing all sorts of buildings and raising alarms if even small cracks are visible. No one’s taking any chances any more. But these things tend to die off and stop happening once those in charge think no one’s looking any more.
This is the West’s ‘achilles’ heel’: the willpower to remain committed to putting on the pressure, make long-lasting changes and develop equal relationships where people matter more than the money.
But while we can throw money at the problem, build trust-funds, bind ourselves in bureaucratic red-tape and legally-binding initiatives which sound good but do nothing and make tiny increases in price to our merchandise to appease the conscience of our customers, we will save ourselves the effort of proclaiming the importance of the rights of all human beings everywhere.
Such effort needs long-term commitment and genuine care about the welfare of a people thousands of miles from where most of us reading this live.
Frankly, I don’t think we have the balls for it.
- The seamstress in the rubble (cnn.com)
- You: Muhammad Yunus appeals to west to help Bangladesh’s garment industry (guardian.co.uk)
- After the Savar tragedy, time for an international minimum wage | Muhammad Yunus (guardian.co.uk)
- H&M To Sign Bangladesh Factory Safety Accord (huffingtonpost.com)
- Bangladesh factories close indefinitely (bigpondnews.com)
- 1100 dead, retailers say ‘no thanks’ (theage.com.au)