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Dhaka Tribune

The view from the outside

Update : 30 Apr 2013, 04:33 PM

As closet narcissists, we feel the world revolves around us. My world does too, with a slight twist. Call it a Canadian tendency for self-inflicted guilt, I find myself indirectly responsible for lost species; invasive new ones; for sweatshops in dingy buildings in the developing world; and, somehow the obesity epidemic too. 

When the first graphic of the rubble of Rana Plaza made its way to my computer, I literally dropped a household item I had been holding from Loblaws, a Canadian chain that carries Joe Fresh, one of the brands that was being manufactured in the ill-fated building.

I vowed to not shop there again.

Initially, it felt like another addition to my long list of begrudged embargoes: mass produced radioactive granite, leather sports goods from Pakistan, regulated antibiotics in butter, Nafta approved, sorry imposed GMOS, etc. But this time, there was solidarity in my conviction.

Social media platforms were overwhelmed from boycott threats by conscientious Canadians.

As the details started coming in, there were more questions than answers. In torrents of expletives Bangladeshi citizens were demanding a quick fix. In other words, a fast track trial, lynching, and, or pelting of the building owner who was well aware of the possibility of collapse.

Unable to break free of dirty pre-election inertia, ruling and opposing parties reverted to the headless chicken run: prove a point, instigate hysteria on lien and lineage, find a punching bag, backtrack, assert self-importance, and debase the other. Bonus points were to be had if search and rescue chanced to fall within personal agendas.

Mathew Coutts wrote in the Daily Brew that workers had “no idea that the financial benefit of having them hemming and sewing t-shirts and sweaters had been calculated and valued higher than their right to live.” And someone stopped me to ask: “Is it true Bangladeshi labor is so cheap that China outsources there?”

Unfortunately, yes and yes to both scenarios. But surely, the social responsibility of retailer compliance is not manufactured in Bangladesh.

Cannibalistic consumerism is surely not a phenomenon borne in the unskilled factory worker populations that died in Savar, or will succumb on the front lines of inhumane industries, unreported, and one at a time. Someone with an army of lawyers and accountants somewhere is well aware of the possibilities of deliberate risk exposures and gets away with it. Loblaws stated it hadn’t done enough to live up to its own standards, and relied on overseas audit firms for compliances.

However, it says it wants to improve the physical safety of workers; the Worldwide Responsible Accreditation Program works towards ensuring the safety of garment workers; and somewhere in the tomes of legalese, there exists an ordinance called the Bangladesh Fire and Building Safety Agreement. So who takes it from self righteous disclaimer to translatable contingency measure? There are other questions that warrant answers in order to stop Tazreen and Rana Plaza from relocating to the next desperate postal code. 

Soon, on the heels of indignation, came statements from bleeding hearts and the BGMEA highlighting the garments industry as the backbone of the Bangladeshi economy. How long can a nation piggy back on an osteoporotic spine?

Still fumbling to find pressure points in the complex consumer-manufacture supply chains, the blame scatters very thin.

Workers, some desperately, others, as self expression, have taken to protests and property damage. Given that minimum wages are laughable and labor rights nonexistent, whose insurance pays for loss of income when they break the still standing garment factories?

We, as consumers must learn counter-intuitively to place a monetary value on ethics and morality. But who proposes an ethical profit margin? Who builds accountability in the supply demand chain?

The production cost for a Joe Fresh T shirt is less than a dollar. Doesn’t make sense, right? It shouldn’t, because the truth is, someone is paying for actual cost. The question is: Who?

The one positive thing to have transpired in the wake of incident is solidarity and un-patronised nationalism. In a rare display of initiative and compassion, individual and private efforts have been amazing.

Note to political leaders - save the saving of face for the parliament. Every person that comes out of the debris breathing is far bigger in the scheme of things than your own illusions of political celebrity.

Kausar Shahab is a freelance contributor.  

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