Factory Recall - Ten Years Later

· Ethics,Social Justice

Ten years ago, on April 24, 2013, the Rana Plaza in Bangladesh collapsed, killing over 1,000 workers and wounding 2,500 more. Largely a garment factory, it’s de-struction was due to structural failure. Only days before, signs of the building’s fragility had been brought to the attention of its owners by their employees.

I remember the shock of it and the indignation I felt. The latter came out in the words of an article I wrote. At the time, I wasn’t unaware that much of what we consume is made by people who are provided unjust, unclean, unsafe working conditions. That workers are
not given fair wages, insurance, or benefits. And that there is no accountability for those who manage or are in any way connected to these factories. To me, the problem was clear. Fast fashion. Brought to you by slave labour.

But there were no easy answers to this problem. It was, after all, something that came out of the complex world of global capitalism. For some of us, our first instinct was to call for the end of all unsafe places of work. But a different answer came from people who worked in these places—mostly women supporting young families. They were desperate enough for a meagre income that they had taken these jobs. They called for “jobs with dignity.”

There rose a groundswell of advocacy on behalf of these abused labourers, calling all corporations tied to Rana Plaza and other hazardous working spaces to make amends. A few of them (but not all of them) became known. Some promised to do better, admitting they hadn’t been keeping a close eye on the locations like Rana Plaza. They promised to work on accountability from the upper echelons of leadership to the factory floor.

But it turned out to be not as simple as that. And it turned out to be not as simple as you and me avoiding fast fashion. As those corporate promises failed to be kept, they admitted a deeper problem. They are simply unable to track their supply chains. Why? The structures of their supply chains have been set up to be so confounded, so disjointed that corporate leaders are incapable of mapping them, let alone indicating where the raw goods originated. Global corporations outsource their work, and when outsourcing happens, accountability agreements are not made. Those who profit hold no legal responsibility when a factory collapses, let alone for fair pay and working conditions. And there is no authority in place to ensure they do.

This way of operating is not understandable ignorance in a complex world. It is intentional ignorance. And it is systemic evil.

10 years later, conditions haven’t changed. In fact, throughout COVID, workers continued to labour for their employers. But no one was buying, so brands cancelled their orders, leaving local factories unable to pay their workers.

What can we do when we are caught up in systemic evil? One practice is to research companies and choose to purchase from those making efforts to ensure their chain of supply is clearer, to ensure all workers are treated fairly. This is sometimes called ethical consumerism.

But it’s not a silver bullet. Capitalism is about profit. It costs to pay fair wages. It costs to create and maintain safe working conditions. It costs to offer benefits and insurance. And
these costs get passed down to the consumer. Purchasing ethically sourced goods and services is a privilege for those of us who can afford to do so. But this is a high moral standard, one not accessible to those who get by on dollar store purchases. Are we willing to call them unethical?

We could pivot to encourage shopping at second-hand shops, something that more of us can do. And second-hand shopping is not a bad thing on its own. But not everything is available second-hand. And second-hand shopping doesn’t directly help to those labourers compromised by the desire for profit.

In the end, it may be down to campaigning together for fairer conditions for all persons whose labour conditions are unjust, whether they work in Bangladesh or Manitoba. It may be down to calling on governments at all levels to create networks of accountability for companies that outsource their labour. But this has to be a shared effort—a shared change of heart from consumerism to sustainable capitalism. Because it’s always easier to make a profit than it is to value people.