Sunday, April 21, 2024


Dhaka Tribune

Engage-Not boycott

Update : 28 Apr 2013, 07:14 AM


I’ve been reading of calls in the Canadian and US media for a boycott of Bangladeshi products until there are safe working conditions in Bangladeshi factories. It sounds good. Avoid buying Bangladeshi clothes until the evil owners fix the problems. Sounds easy to do too. Just check the labels and make sure they’re from China or Honduras. Until there’s a fire or building collapse there.

The thing about a boycott like that is that it would be counterproductive. There are thousands of garment factories in Bangladesh employing over 4m women. That’s more women than the entire province of Ontario. A boycott or ban would put their livelihoods at risk. Moreover, it doesn’t punish the perpetrators of the crime. And they have no motivation left to even try to improve the working conditions.

Is there another way? Buyers, especially big ones like Loblaws (owner of the Joe Fresh brand) and Wal-mart, have a tremendous amount of influence in Bangladesh. And they also have choices. They can chose to engage only firms with good labour practices. They can choose to have inspectors check on those requirements. They can choose to ban sub-contractors unless they comply with the same guidelines. They can cancel orders from any contractors who fail to enforce standards at their subcontractors. They can engage the BGMEA directly and force them to support a set of standards. They can choose to go directly to manufacturers and not work through a series of subcontractors and sub-sub-contractors.

Bangladesh does not need aid. Aid money is essentially robbed and sent back to offshore banks leaving the poor taxpayers holding the bag. But it does need trade; at least some of that money gets distributed through all layers of society. Should that trade vanish, all the aid in the world would not be able to lift Bangladesh out of poverty.

But is it all a matter of buyer responsibility? Should we not fix our own house before being told to do so? As Bangladeshis, we have come to expect the least of our governments. We don’t expect our government to enforce laws or punish wrongdoers. We don’t expect our government to look out for the poor. Garments workers and expatriate labourers can testify to the fact that we don’t have the minimum services one would expect the government to provide for its largest foreign exchange earners. One hopes that this disaster will spur this government to change that trend. One hopes but doesn’t expect.

What about the citizenry? Anything they can do? From the protests and riots on the streets one can be forgiven for thinking that transportation is public enemy number one. For all that angers us Bangladeshis, it’s always vehicles that bear the brunt. We like to burn them, smash them, topple them over and, by the time we’re through, the destruction is an end unto itself and many of the participants forget what the protest was about. It’s also time for our citizens to direct the anger where it is due. Demand better working conditions. Demand enforcement of labour laws. Demand punishment for criminals.

Most importantly we need to end our blind support of our political parties. When a minister says the opposition party activists shook the building so it weakened, we need make it clear that his intelligence does not qualify him to be a minister. When the prime minister claims that the owner of the building is not a member of her party, despite his presence in numerous party events, call it what it is, a blatant lie.  The media needs to call out politicians on their absurdities and lies.

But, for now, there are immediate needs that need to be addressed as well. Strikes and violence are not going to put food on the tables of those who lost their livelihoods to injury. It’s not going to restore anyone’s loved ones, and it is not going to satisfy one’s sense of vengeance. Living half a world away, I have been impressed at the way common people have come together in the rescue effort. We need to remain together for a rehabilitation effort as well. Once the rubble is cleared from the ground and the dead buried, let us not forget the living. 


Saif Ahmed

Ottawa, Canada

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