When I was last in Bangladesh, in November, a factory fire broke out in Ashulia, near the capital Dhaka, killing over 135 factory workers.
Like others at the time, this event prompted me to write – http://saigonsays.wordpress.com/category/travels/bangladesh/ – to raise awareness, to express sadness, and to describe CARE’s work in this particular arena.
It’s selfish writing in many ways. Such an unnecessary event, needlessly taking lives, and a sense that you can respond in some capacity by simply writing a narrative. Although, at the time, I don’t remember it making me feel any better about what had taken place in Ashulia.
And now it has happened all over again, once more in Bangladesh, this time just north of the capital, in Savar, after the total collapse of the Rana Plaza building, last Wednesday. Rana Plaza was eight-storeys high, housed four garment factories, 6,000 workers, and should never have been open last week, after factory inspectors had ordered the building be evacuated having declared it unsafe.
Estimates are that over 400 of the factory workers’ lives were taken, in what has been described as one of the worst incidents of building collapse in the country’s history. Some are placing the death toll closer to 1,300, given so many workers are still unaccounted for.
After the November fire, there were vitriolic calls for large corporations to address safety issues in their supply chains, to act more responsibly. “Western shoppers” were lobbied to think about their consumption of cheap clothes – promoting a more ‘bottom-up’ approach to tackling issues being faced by those factory owners responding to the demands of their buyers.
Responses which, in turn, impact the workers on the factory floors, themselves subject to the decisions and choices their bosses have to make each day. The same, predominantly female, factory workers (many of whom are sole earners in their households) living on very little income, putting in regular overtime and now, once more, paying with their lives.
More viral outrage has spread following last week’s fire at Savar. A “T-shirt tax” campaign has also been launched. Factory owners have been arrested. And, from me, another blog…
There are no easy solutions to this particular industry impasse, it would seem.
Will consumers ever collectively change behaviour? Can factory owners realistically be expected to put health and safety before profit and commercial viability? Do government departments, in particular in some of the world’s countries with low GDP levels, have the clout to change regulations, without deterring export potential?
Writing earlier in the month about some of the issues holding companies back from being genuinely transformatory, in relation to the sustainability agenda http://www.guardian.co.uk/sustainable-business/transforming-corporate-sector-fear-future?CMP=twt_gu the Guardian’s Jo Confino makes a strong plea for a change in attitude and approach.
It is an angle that has been pursued for some time now, in terms ultimately of trying to bring about systemic change across the different sectors, in relation to the way in which ‘impact’ actually comes about in social development.
Just how, and what, do we change in order to reinvent a status quo that resulted in the loss of so many lives in Savar last week? So much suffering and so much loss – all of which were avoidable.
Confino’s article is based around visioning a future where difficult choices are made by large corporations, and he concludes that “only by embracing uncertainty, will the way forward start to manifest”.
I like this sentiment. The corporate sector’s historical faith in how a successful business is judged by its (financial) bottom line, is being put to the test. It is just no longer good enough to ignore the environmental and social returns on investment that a company – and, specifically, some of the world’s largest companies – can influence.
He then goes on to use Neo’s dilemma in the film, The Matrix, when asked to choose between the blue or the red pill – a choice that will either offer the protagonist a life of “blissful ignorance and illusion”, or else the “painful truth of a new reality,” respectively.
Way beyond the pain of this latest tragedy in Bangladesh, and beyond that which reverberates throughout so many households of the world, lies a scenario for humankind in which those in positions of responsibility will take different, bold and more intrepid paths. Multi-national corporations, yes, but the application of choice is relevant for everyone.
A ‘red pill’ path towards this vision does exist – it has to.
But in the meantime, let’s get behind the public campaigning, as well as the more private advocating approaches of organisations such as CARE – collaborating as we do across all sectors – and let’s continue to ensure these issues are in the collective public consciousness.