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My bloody closet

I found five tags that say "Made in Bangladesh," but I don't know what to do next.
By Doug Muder

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(© esolla/iStockphoto)

This morning I examined the shirts in my closet for bloodstains. I may have found some.

It's hard to say for sure, because the bloodstains I was looking for were metaphorical, not bright red blotches. Literally, I was looking for tags that said "Made in Bangladesh."

I found five of them.

Having found them, I don't know what to do next, which makes me wonder why I looked. If I didn't own any Bangladesh-made clothes, would I have decided to ignore the collapse of Rana Plaza? "It's a shame 800 people died because garment-factory workers were forced to cover their shifts even after cracks appeared in the walls—but it's got nothing to do with me." Would I have said that? Was that my plan?

I don't know. I don't think I spelled it out that clearly. All I am sure of is I feel divided inside. When I heard that workers in a poor country had died making things just like the ones I use, part of me wanted to confess and seek punishment. But another part wanted to wriggle off the hook: it's not fair to blame me. I never meant those workers any harm. I just saw a good deal on a shirt and took it.

Statistically, my five shirts are very unlikely to have been made at Rana Plaza (or at Tazreen Fashions, a Bangladeshi factory that burned in November, killing 112 workers who couldn't get out because the fire escapes were inadequate). Bangladesh is a surprisingly big country (about half the population of the United States). It's the world's second-largest clothing exporter (after China). It has over 5,000 garment factories (H&M alone claims to contract with 166 of them), most of which are still standing. Probably my shirts came from one of those. Probably the women—most of the dead garment-factory workers were women—who sewed my shirts together are still alive, or died some other way entirely.


Even if I assume that, though, my shirts' factories functioned under the same rules (and lack of rule enforcement) as Rana and Tazreen. The women who worked there probably were just as powerless, and their employers may have been just as careless of their safety. After all, the factory owners at Rana and Tazreen weren't trying to kill workers by the hundreds; they just cut corners and got unlucky. If they'd been luckier, maybe their corner-cutting would only have killed workers by the ones and twos, and so would never have come to my attention.

According to the United Nations' International Labour Organization, there are more than 300 million on-the-job accidents every year, and most of them don't kill anybody. About 2.3 million people die each year from on-the-job accidents or work-related diseases. That's 6,300 people a day, or one Rana Plaza-equivalent every three hours or so.

So maybe my shirts do have bloodstains, even if they don't come from Rana Plaza. Maybe I should also be checking my shirts from Sri Lanka or Indonesia or Vietnam. Maybe I should be checking everything I buy.

Industrial accidents are hard to prevent, because there's no money for it, particularly in the kinds of countries that do most of the manufacturing these days. MacLean's estimates that the typical $14 shirt made in Bangladesh and sold in Canada costs the retailer about $5.67. Of that, labor costs twelve cents, and seven cents is devoted to factory overhead. 

Building better fire escapes or shoring up walls that might otherwise fall down—that would be factory overhead. Safe factories might have to cost more than seven cents a shirt, and where would the money come from? From the fifty-eight cents that the factory owners get? From the $8.33 retailer mark-up? Or maybe from me. Maybe my shirts would have to cost a few cents more.

And that's the weirdest part of the whole picture: I don't think I'd mind. Sure, I like low prices, and I try to get a good deal. But if the market could offer me a bloodstain-free shirt for an extra dime or quarter, I think I'd like that.

In the days following the Rana Plaza collapse, the members of my Unitarian Universalist congregation were all over that idea. On our email discussion list, we shared links to the webpages where various retailers explained the worker-safety policies they want their suppliers to live up to. They all sounded very reassuring.

If they're enforced.

And that is where our investigations break down. We can search for corporate policy statements and read them, but we lack the resources to check them against the real conditions that hold in the factories. Maybe some corporations take those policies seriously and only deal with factories that also take them seriously. But others may write their safety policies with a wink and a nod, and accept the winks and nods of the factory owners. How can we know?

Ultimately, the problem comes down to this: markets fulfill the desires of those who have market power, those who have something valuable to trade and could choose to go somewhere else with it. In this case, power only runs in one direction. I could shop at a different store and buy different brands (or decide that my current shirt collection is good enough). The stores could carry different brands, and the brands have their choice of thousands of factories in dozens of poor countries. The factories, in turn, can choose among countless desperate workers. Any worker who says "no" is a troublemaker and is easily replaced.

As a result, the desire that matters to the market is my desire not to feel guilty, not the workers' desire to be safe and healthy while making a livable wage. If I look into my closet and find tags that clear my conscience, then the market is satisfied, whether workers continue dying or not. So the easiest path to profit is to fool me, not to improve the lot of workers in countries like Bangladesh.

The market is constantly seeking that kind of "efficiency," so even if a few of the corporate entities between me and the garment workers are sincere, any weak link in the chain will eventually be found and exploited. Maybe that weak link will be me. How long will I stay focused on this issue? How much would I be thinking about it at all, if none of my tags had said Bangladesh?

That awareness of my own weak-link potential may be why I'm skeptical of the ultimate value of socially conscious shopping. Sometimes it's the only tool we have, so of course we should try to use it. I think it works better locally than internationally, and better in small markets than large ones, but maybe maybe there is room for a socially conscious niche inside the global garment trade. Even so, as long as the power flows in only one direction, we are going to be pushing on a rope.

Long-term and large-scale, the only chance of a solution involves changing the system to give workers real power, so that they can make their own demands rather than depend on my flighty, easily-fooled guilt to make demands for them. Empowered workers can insist on their own fire escapes, and refuse to enter a building whose walls are cracking. They will know immediately whether their needs are being met, and won't be conned by pious words on a website.

When power flows in that direction as well, workers will demand that factories spend whatever safety requires. Factories will impose those costs on the brands, who will pass them on to the stores, and ultimately I will end up paying more for my shirts—not because I am so magnanimous, but because that's what they cost.

But empowering workers requires political action, not just personal decisions about what to buy. It requires support for democracy and for unionization around the world. It requires international trade agreements that protect workers rather than just corporations. It requires antitrust enforcement that makes every stage in the supply chain competitive, rather than letting giant retailers dictate prices to their suppliers. It requires international standards for safety, for workers' rights, and an international minimum wage that applies to anything manufactured for export. Most of all, it requires eliminating—everywhere!—the kind of desperate poverty that gives people no choice but to risk their lives to keep their jobs.

I can't do any of that as a consumer in a market. To make any progress at all, I need to be a citizen working inside a movement in a political system.

And if I'm going to be effective in that role, I'll need to make some changes inside myself. I've got to get past my purely personal models of guilt and redemption. It doesn't matter whether my particular shirts came from the factory that collapsed, and no one benefits if I flagellate myself about the ones that might have. Every day, millions of poor people around the world—even some in the United States—risk their lives and health so that consumers like me can have cheap products. Not just clothes, either, but every kind of gadget, device, and foodstuff as well. I wonder how much of the food I eat was grown with fertilizer from West, Texas.

On any given day, the vast majority of those workers won't die, and even the ones who do usually won't make the newspapers. So on the rare days where the headlines remind me of this systemic injustice, I shouldn't respond with a spasm of emotion and cast about for some immediate personal action I can take to discharge my individual conscience.

My conscience shouldn't get discharged at all, because the injustice continues no matter what I choose to do or not do as an individual.

My guilt isn't personal. That much of the self-justifying rant in my head is true: I didn't mean those workers any harm and my individual actions couldn't have saved them. But I benefit, day in and day out, from a system of unbalanced power. When some spectacular event shines a light on that system, my awareness shouldn't blaze up suddenly and then burn itself out in some symbolic personal action that has no political impact.

Our guilt is social and systemic. Our determination to change that system needs to burn steadily, day in and day out. Every bloody product we consume should add fuel to that fire, even on days when the headlines would call our attention somewhere else.

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