Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Somebody else's problem

I'm back!  Er...did I say "Monday?"  Sorry about that.

Actually, I've been really busy getting my second book ready to publish.  I ordered proof copies today--yay!  But I've also been up really late the last few nights, so I'm not all that coherent.

I don't want to wait any longer, though, to talk some more about that Bangladesh garment factory fire/collapse.  The one where a young woman was dug out alive from the rubble after 17 days.  The one where 1,100 workers died making clothing for about 30 cents an hour while the companies that ordered those clothes charged their customers anywhere from seven to ten times what they paid for the clothes in the first place--and yet those companies insist that they can't afford to help improve working conditions in those factories.  Oh, but they are, some of them, making vague promises about setting up a "fund" for the victims (or, perhaps, their families, since most of the victims died).

Many people seem to shrug at this stuff and say, "Oh, well.  All corporations are evil.  What can we do?" as though the problem is to big for us to deal with, as though it's always somebody else's problem.  But a reader sent me this terrific list of clothing companies who are actually trying not to cooperate with substandard factories and terrible working conditions.  Some people might reject the list as coming from what Mark Shea calls a "ritually impure source," but I would think that if anyone really wished to support companies that don't treat their workers like expendable cogs in an impersonal machine he or she could check out these companies for himself or herself and find out if they are, in fact, helping to improve garment factory conditions or making sure their garments aren't made in substandard environments.  It's just not the case that our only option here is to pretend that our consumer choices don't matter.

Having said that, I want to make it clear that the primary way our choices matter is to our own souls.  As Catholics, as Christians, as decent human beings we are called to stand in solidarity with the poor and the oppressed--and, yes, making people risk their lives to work in dangerous factories while paying them a few dimes an hour is a form of oppression.  It would be great if enough people sent a message to enough clothing brands and retailers that this is simply unacceptable such that they accepted the need to be active in changing things for those workers, but even if that didn't happen, at least we would be standing with our poor brothers and sisters in third-world countries instead of trampling over them on our way to the mall.  Few of the goods produced in these hell-holes are necessary to our lives or survival, and most of them--basic clothing items--can, indeed, be purchased from retailers who have already chosen not to contract with these sorts of factories (or, indeed, with the countries that allow this stuff to go on unchecked).

Now, I know that sometimes we suffer a bit from "boycott fatigue."  If we look hard enough, there are good reasons to avoid shopping anywhere or buying anything, and yet most of us are several acres and a plethora of farm crops and animals away from total self-sufficiency.  It seems to me, though, that when companies are making huge profits selling goods made for a few dollars apiece, and when the reason those goods can be made so cheaply is precisely because the manufacturing plant owners don't seem to care at all if they employ the desperately poor or if a thousand or so of them die in preventable factory accidents every now and again, we have a unique opportunity to draw a line and say, "No, I won't put up with this."

At the very least, most of us are in a position to offer sincere prayers for our brothers and sisters in the human family who live and work in Bangladesh.  And most of us could, when shopping, check the occasional clothing label now and again to avoid encouraging retailers to contract with garment manufacturers in a nation where worker safety always seems to be somebody else's problem. 


Tony said...

We affluent Americans can be so smug in our righteousness without taking into account unexpected consequences.

The Patel family with 5 children all work for "dimes". These dimes allow the family to eat and remain alive.

They shut down the plant because they are not getting enough orders from righteous Catholics.

The Patel family starves and die because of their action.

We really need to be careful about applying our American standards to other countries.

Red Cardigan said...

Tony, I am actually careful about boycotting and unintended consequences. But suppose that this hypothetical family had been working in the plant that collapsed, and the only survivor from the family is a girl aged ten who now becomes a prostitute to stay alive. How is that better?

B et G said...

Yeah that kind of reasoning, "well it's better than nothing" just serves to perpetuate gross business practices. Looking towards the long term can and will have some immediate negative effects (refusing to support a clear-cutting industry and instead supporting the industries which take the care to restore forests will end up in short term job loss, for example) but finally the long term effects of treating poor people crappily outweigh the short term effects in evil consequences. I believe that being principled in these areas to the best of our ability will finally work out for the best even in this world.