Last weekend I was sitting out on the front porch at my inlaws’ place, sipping iced tea and enjoying the beautiful spring weather. A neighbour passed by on his bicycle and we asked him to join us. He is from Bangladesh. We started talking about the recent factory collapse that has caused the deaths of over 1,000 garment workers in his country. His countenance fell. “I’ve decided to not purchase any clothing made in Bangladesh until labour laws change,” he said. Pain was etched into his face.
On Wednesday April 24, a garment factory in Bangladesh collapsed with about 3,500 workers inside. Large cracks had been discovered in the walls the day before, but despite this, workers had been ordered back to work on Wednesday. They were told that their month’s pay would be withheld if they did not enter the building. A survivor recounts:
“The owner of Rana Plaza along with gang members holding sticks were standing in front of the main entrance gate threatening that they would beat us with sticks and break our bones if we didn’t work that morning. We were frightened and had no choice but to go in to work.”
An hour later the building crumbled. Here is a list of labels that were being made in the building that collapsed:
- Joe Fresh, owned by Loblaws Inc. of Ontario, Canada (custom records and labels found on site)
- Benneton (labels found on site)
- The Childrens Place (custom records)
- Cato Corp (custom records)
- Irish company, Primark’s “Denim Co” “Cedar wood State” and others (labels found on site)
- Papaya Denim, owned by Matalan in the UK (labels found on site)
- “Free Style Baby” sold at Spanish retail chain “El Corte Ingles” (labels found on site)
- “European Project owned by Manifattura Corona (Italy) (labels found on site)
- Velilla – Spanish work clothing company (labels found on site)
And here is where the finger pointing begins. The race to the bottom, a bi-product of unchecked capitalism, ensures that no one is really responsible for what happened.
Plausible deniability: A condition in which a subject can safely and believably deny knowledge of any particular truth that may exist, because the subject is deliberately made unaware of said truth so as to benefit or shield the subject from any responsibility associated through the knowledge of such truth.
The owner of the plaza that housed the garment factories doesn’t claim responsibility, because the factories had chosen to operate in the building without demanding structural upgrades first.
The owners of the the garment factories are not responsible, because they are only trying to meet the demands and deadlines of the multinational corporations who they make clothing for.
The companies who sell clothing in their stores are not responsible, because they assume that the government of Bangladesh is enforcing labour laws that align with their codes of conduct.
The government of Bangladesh is not responsible, because if they start to reinforce labour codes, international corporations will pull out of Bangladesh, with significant economic ramifications.
The customers buying clothing are not responsible, because they assumed that the company selling them would be monitoring their factories. And, at the end of the day, stylish clothing for low prices trumps any further investigation as to where that clothing comes from.
In essence, the landlord blames the factories, the factories blame the multinational corporations, the multinational corporations blame the government, the government blames the economic climate, and the customers blame their ignorance or inability to afford clothing that is ethically made.
And no one is left to take responsibility for the hundreds of people crushed under the weight of concrete.
Of course, the reality is that every player in this sequence is responsible. It’s time to make this personal. If you have purchased a Joe Fresh item, you are responsible. If you don’t research where your clothing comes from, you are responsible. If you are a shareholder of once of these corporations, you are responsible. If you manage a sweatshop, you are responsible.
This goes for me too. This is a picture of me several years ago, before I was fully aware of where my clothing was coming from. I am wearing a grey, super comfortable Joe Fresh shirt that I bought for around $15.00. I didn’t realize where this shirt had come from. I was unaware that the people making it were earning wages of 14 cents to 26 cents an hour while working 13 to 14 ½ hour shifts – 6 and 7 days a week. Despite my past ignorance, I have decided to take responsibility today.
This shirt is the only Joe Fresh item I have owned, and I am donating the amount the I paid for it to the Bangladesh Injured Worker’s Relief Fund, set up by the Institute for Global Labour and Human Rights. I have benefited from the labour of these workers, so the least I can do is support their families in a time of absolute crisis.
It will be interesting to see if companies are willing to take responsibility. Since Joe Fresh is close to home, let’s look at their promises in response to this tragedy:
“A new standard at Loblaw, ensuring all of our control brand products are made in facilities that respect local construction and building codes, and a commitment to have Loblaw people on the ground who will report directly to us ensuring that product we produce is made in a manner that reflect our values.”
However, making a real change would require Loblaws to alter its core value for the Joe Fresh line. In a video on their website, the Creative Director explains:
“The Westons came to me and asked me to create this line of apparel, and restrictions were: price point.”
Since restrictions is plural, I assumed there was more coming. But as it turns out, price point was the only restriction. Which means profit at any cost. This is why companies often seek out countries with poor government labour regulation. Cheap labour equals lower prices for customers and bigger profits for shareholders.
Analysts were told that there has been no measurable impact on Joe Fresh sales since the tragedy in Bangladesh.
I am very concerned for the 1000+ families who now have no income. These types of scenarios often push girls into the sex trade, and there is no doubt that traffickers are currently on a hunt in this area of Bangladesh where vulnerability and chaos abounds.
This raises the following question: if families in poor countries are made even more vulnerable to abuse, sex trafficking, and homelessness when a factory shuts down, doesn’t that mean we should continue purchasing products made in these factories, even if the conditions and pay are not adequate? If we stop consuming, won’t we put all these people out of work?
In this situation, I think the best thing that can be done is to plant the good and phase out the bad. Currently, the economics are twisted in such a way that workers in impoverished countries are dependent on their own exploitation. While I believe that we should stop purchasing clothing made by low-paid labour in places like Bangladesh and China, we must simultaneously support fair trade initiatives in these countries. I am perfectly fine with buying ethically made clothing from any country. Every dollar is a vote, and the more we demand ethically made products, the more it will impact communities positively. Eventually, ethically sourced products could become mainstream. People in Bangladesh could gain independence through real opportunities instead of depending on their exploiters for a quasi-livelihood.
7 Things You Can Do:
1. Go through your closet. For every piece of Joe Fresh clothing (or clothing from the other companies mentioned earlier) that you own, make a donation for the amount that you paid for them. Don’t own anything from these clothing lines? Look at the labels and make a donation for every piece made in Bangladesh, whatever the brand.
2. Sponsor a child in Bangladesh. For about a $1 a day, you can provide access to life-saving basics that change a child’s future. World Vision’s child sponsorship programs are community based, meaning that the whole community ultimately benefits in a sustainable and wholistic way. If you want to decrease the likelihood of someone ending up in a sweatshop – or other vulnerable situations – investing in a child’s life is a great place to start. You can refine your search to children in Bangladesh here.
3. Discover your slavery footprint. Find out by taking the survey here and see what you can do. You can find letter templates to companies and other resources too!
4. Run an ethical business. We need a generation of selfless entrepreneurs who have a people motive instead of a profit motive - businessmen and women whose driving motivator goes beyond lining the pockets of first-world shareholders. Currently there are very few companies that source ethically. There is a market for this, so start a business! Go to Made In A Free World for ideas.
5. Research where your clothing comes from. Google the company name with the word “labour practices” and see what you find. Or, pick a product and see if you can find what factory it was made in. My friend had to do this for a university class, and barely anyone was able to complete the assignment due to red tape and corporate run-around. Write a letter to the company in question and tell them that you would like them to source their products ethically.
6. Buy used clothing. This way, you are not contributing to the booming demand for new clothes that are made in these factories. Consignment stores are awesome for this. Bonus: you will save money!
7. Buy ethically made products from:
Above all, let’s take responsibility, vote with our dollars, and urge companies to source their products ethically.