Throwing money at Bangladeshi garment girls will keep them in slavery

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.

Source: Daily Star

Source: Daily Star

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.

Source: Shyamal Mahmood

Source: Shyamal Mahmood

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.

Savar tragedy 1

Source: Dhaka Tribune

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About D K Powell

British freelance journalist, author, writer, editor, musician, educational consultant. I lived with Wifey, Thing I (daughter) & Thing II (son) in Bangladesh for 5-6 years working for an NGO called LAMB. Wifey led the Hospital Rehab department and I used to teach O levels at the school before going full-time as a freelance writer in 2013. Now we're back in the UK learning how to be British again. When not writing or editing, I'm busy trying to complete a Masters degree in Intercultural relations in Asian Contexts and reading way too many books at once. I also drink tea - lots of it.
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17 Responses to Throwing money at Bangladeshi garment girls will keep them in slavery

  1. Lunch Sketch says:

    Sadly, I think you are right Ken. Too many in the West (myself included), sigh in disbelief, shake their heads in disbelief … and then move on.
    I like to think it is improving with each generation, as information and technology opens peoples (consumers) eyes to a greater world view … time will tell.
    Good Post.

    Like

    • I agree entirely. I think we’ve been somewhat conditioned to ‘move on’ with the barrage of information that comes through our doors, TV screens, mobiles, laptops etc. It’s the only way to survive it very often.

      But all this makes the world a little smaller and if we can persuade ourselves as well as others to see the country on the other side of the world as our ‘neighbour next door’ then perhaps things will get better before we’re both too old and wrinkly to care any longer?

      Like

  2. audrina1759 says:

    This is sad,and it seems to be getting worse.

    Like

  3. Adnan R. Amin says:

    ‘The girls’ are our/Bangladesh’s concern. The RMG business, buyers’. And that’s the nature of the capitalistic arrangement that governs this (and most other) sector. Bangladesh just needs to acknowledge (the unfairness of) it and work with that. Given the opportunity to ‘graduate’ – and gradually introduce better and better wages and facilities for workers – I truly believe it can be done. Because the Bangladeshi people, if nothing else, are.astoundingly driven and resilient.

    Like

    • I particularly agree with your last sentence. The history of the Bengal region is one of courage and determination against all odds. The people are inspiring.I think (hope/would like to believe) that the world is changing though and a return to the buyers being more interested in the ethics of what they buy rather than the cost is beginning to take place. If so, the the garment industry needs to think about Bangladesh’s girls just as much.

      Like

  4. renxkyoko says:

    It’s all about profits. Consumers can help if they will boycott any clothes made in Bangladesh. this solution will hurt the bangladeshi workers, but that’s the only way. Hit these unconsionable employers where it hurts… their pocketbooks. Perhaps this way, the Western companies, the Bangladeshi employers and the Bangladeshi government will wake up.

    Like

    • The problem with that solution is that it doesn’t just hurt Bangladeshi workers. It REALLY hurts them! Pressure needs to be put on the industry to support, uphold and improve the conditions for these girls. Boycotting is more likely to see industries get out of the country altogether – and indeed this has already started happening. Walt Disney’s clothes line were the first to pull out.

      Like

      • renxkyoko says:

        It’s going to be just a vicious circle. I’m telling you, as long as it doesn’t hurt their business, all they’ll ever do is pay lip service. You do know it’s always like that, right? I’ll give you an example. ….. The new health care system in the the US is now being implemented. the owner of Papa John’s Pizza threatened to increase all pizzas by 15c ( ???? LOL ) and cut the workers work hours. Do you know what happened? In one day, all Papa John pizza stores were emptied of customers. He had to back off and took back his threats and promised to give his workers health insurance. The same thing happened with Olive garden, a restaurant chain. Some franchise owners complained that not all had that kind of arrogant attitude and they were actually willing to follow the new law and give their workers insurance. It’s like a battlefield, Ken.

        Like

        • Oh I agree with the principle and yes, I’m well aware of how well consumer power affects businesses. But we’re already seeing the proof of my point – that retailers are pulling out of Bangladesh altogether and others – like Tristan in Canada – are actively promoting their stock as ‘Bangladesh free’. This is a disaster for Bangladesh! These are girls who live in absolute poverty. They can’t afford their factories to be closed down. It is much easier for a business to go find workers in another country than it is to be legally bound to take responsibility

          So I agree with your principle but hope that retailers will do the right thing rather than the easy one. THAT’S where we have to use our muscle as consumers!

          Like

          • renxkyoko says:

            Ken, it all boils down to how the Bangladesh government treats its people. It’s not these western companies’ responsibility to take care of another countries’ citizens. I can give you another example…….. he Philippines, together with Australia, is the only country in Asia that is highly unionized. It’s the law of the land. Workers demand better working conditions and wages. Let’s take Proctor and Gamble as an example. This US company has been in the Philippines for almost 100 years, then suddenly, they moved out to Indonesia where they could get workers for a pittance, and were not allowed to organize. P&G makes Colgate, etc. What the Philippines did was to take over the companies that left the country and produced exactly the same products…. they are now cheaper toothpastes because they don’t have to pay for the brand… and now, so many brands proliferated. Win-win It’s the same with garment factories. They left. But the companies that stayed were those that carry high end brands. Hence Philippine garments can be found only in high end stores , and expensive. But still profitable for the western companies and for Philippine companies.

            Like

          • I understand you though I’m opposed to the idea that it is not the responsibility of Western companies to ‘take care of another country’s citizens’. It is when that company is and HAS made a fortune from using those citizens. While companies take the ‘economic’ easy path we will never have a socially just world. I’m afraid the government here is far, far away from being able to follow the Philippine model. Even if it could, the situation for the garment working girls would get much, much worse if the world was not able to watch those who employ them. Right now, unless you live here, it is difficult to see what really goes on. Without International involvement, that would become all but impossible…

            Like

  5. Well said, Ken.
    And as far as us [as in, you and me and a few more mortals], we may indeed have the balls -but does that really make any difference? It was never up to us but the very few otherwise known as: decision makers. And they actually do have balls… to do things for their very own interest – no rules and no ethics involved!

    Like

    • I agree Marina – though with the caveat that I would like to hope that if enough of us globally are saying the same thing and working to change the minds of those ‘decision makers’ then maybe they will change their ways too. That’s the history and success of the Trade unions. They did exactly that. With the internet and the global village we now live in, every person on the planet has the potential to be part of the biggest ‘trade union’ in the world. More than ever, the little person truly does have a voice.

      Like

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