How long until justice flows? Reflections on the garment factory collapse in Dhaka

lily

Maybe Parul sewed the Gap jeans (slim fit, incredibly cute) that I keep on hand when my granddaughters come over and we go play in the dirt. Sixteen-year-old Parul lives in the slums of Dhaka with her family and makes $15 a month working in the garment industry sewing clothes for companies like Gap and Walmart. Fortunately, she didn’t work in the eight-story factory that collapsed on April 24th.

Everyone pointed fingers in the aftermath of the building collapse that killed over 600 (as of today), mostly women and young girls who worked there. Another 2400 are injured and scores are still unaccounted for. The Rana Plaza collapse makes this the mostly deadly manufacturing factory tragedy ever. Anywhere. I don’t want to forget it.

So who is responsible? Wendy McMahan wrote a powerfully compelling article that calls all of us clothes shoppers to consider our culpability and think about choices we could make to lessen that culpability. I recommend you read it.

People inside Bangladesh blame the building owners, who saw the new cracks in the building the day before but sent workers in anyway. And who built extra floors on top of the building illegally to expand the factory’s capacity. The owners have been arrested, and some are calling for the death penalty.

Some commentators blame the Bangladesh government for not insisting on safer working conditions. With 80% of Bangladesh’s economy dependent on the garment industry one can understand why decision makers work hard to keep labor expenses low so big corporations stay in Bangladesh instead of taking their business elsewhere.

Others in Britain and the US blame multinational corporations like Gap (which also produces Banana Republic and Old Navy) and Walmart, two of the companies that have had contracts for clothes from the Rana Plaza. This article by Katelyn Fossett from the Inter Press Service News Agency offers great insight and a summary of the corporate blame story, which is where I learned of Parul.

For good or ill the reality is that all parties are complicit to varying degrees. Multinational Corporations seek out the cheapest labor because cheap labor increases their profit margin and because consumers race to get the best bargains. Most shoppers don’t think about how their clothes come to be so cheap. Partly we race to buy new clothes because clothes are designed with “planned obsolescence” in mind. Profits would become sluggish (as would our economy) if we waited until our clothes wore out before replacing them. We are constantly confronted with changing lengths, fits, colors and cuts so we’ll keep buying to stay fashionable. And buy we do.

Governments in the majority world are culpable, too, though historic issues contributing to dependency on the West make this a long and complex story. Nations in the majority world that participate in global trade know their two best commodities are cheap labor and natural resources. Cheap labor in SE Asia is particularly valuable to multinational corporations. Sometimes to keep their nations from utter economic collapse and sometimes because dictators can get rich, governments open their doors to multinational corporations looking for cheap labor. Leaders look the other way when it comes to what is safe, good for the well-being of the masses, and environmentally sound to woo and then keep corporations from leaving to go somewhere else, where labor is cheaper yet and safety codes less stringent.

So yes, I am culpable as a shopper who likes a bargain, the building owners are culpable–driven by the desire to save a buck to make a buck, the Bangladesh government for not insisting on higher standards for the same reason, multinational corporations for refusing to agree to international labor standards and failing to develop long-term relationships with factories rather than following the cheapest labor around the world. All that multi-layering of culpability makes problems like these difficult to solve. And all of it is about money.

I am generally a hopeful person. Annoyingly optimistic I’ve been told.

But on this day, and each of the last 10 days since hearing of the Rana Plaza collapse, I’ve carried a heavy heart. My throat aches when I think of the families who lost mothers and sisters and daughters. And whose lives are characterized by harsh working conditions that leave so little time to simply live. I want a world where I pay a fair price for what I buy so no hidden costs are paid by someone else. I yearn for a world where corporations and governments put people before profit. I imagine we all long for a world reflecting justice and peace, where good will for all is everyone’s concern–from shoppers to CEOs to national leaders.

Some would say I am yearning for heaven and I suppose that’s true enough. But might God’s heart also ache for this world to be set right? The hope I carry, whether or not I feel it on any given day, is that God works still–even with the givens of our feeble humanity–to redeem, restore, and to set right. It’s a hope that has kept humanity moving toward justice for thousands of years. “Justice must flow like torrents of water, righteous actions like a stream that never dries up,” said the prophet Amos to his nation, one that oppressed the poor and had no concern for justice.

I choose to believe that our heart’s capacity to ache at all reflects some awareness that the world isn’t the way is should be. Could be. Perhaps one day will be.

 

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