SunMay282017

Boycott is not a solution

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Ripan Kumar Biswas, USA

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100-percent-cotton summer shorts. Made in Bangladesh.


During the last Memorial Day weekend at JCPenney Departmental store of Manhattan mall, Six Avenue, Manhattan, New York, me and my colleague Anthony Giangos noticed that around ten people had bought those shorts within half an hour. "Bangladeshi garments are nothing short of sumptuous but have unique luster and captivating look," Anthony said delightfully. He further added “how come this big giants like Disney forget their corporate social responsibilities!”

 

The Walt Disney Company is the first brand, which has declared to stop production of its branded merchandise in Bangladesh, in response to the devastating collapse of a factory building in last April that left more than 1130 people dead and thousands critically injured. Disney added that the decision was made before last April’s collapse of the factory building and was based on a report from the World Bank that assesses how countries are governed, using metrics like accountability, and corruption and violence etc. The company also halted production in four other countries: Ecuador, Venezuela, Belarus and Pakistan, by April 2014.

 

While Disney has reassured that the company will consider permitting production in Bangladesh in the future if factories agree to partner with the Better Work program, but Disney isn’t the only company snapping into action after the latest tragedy. The European Union, which gives preferential access to Bangladeshi garments, had threatened punitive measures if the country would fail to improve its worker safety standards.

 

We become speechless when we witness the stench of frequent unexpected death in many garments factories in Bangladesh. True, when we see the pictures of the Rana Plaza wreckage, it’s very easy to imagine a backdrop of stagnation, complacency and despair in which nothing ever changes, no matter how awful the tragedy is or was. Understandable when buyer companies face harshest words from critics, international bodies, human rights groups, or even from their customers, but is it a solution to stop sourcing apparels from the country altogether?

 

Among $578 billion value of apparel and garments business worldwide, Bangladesh is the third largest exporter of garments in the world to the U.S., following China and Vietnam, and a large exporter to Europe. There are 5,000 factories in the country and 4 million garment workers. On an average, Bangladesh exports $20 billion of garments each year. Eighty percent of Bangladeshi exports are ready made garments. Total exports in the first three quarters of Bangladesh's July-June financial year were $19.70 billion, compared with $17.89 billion over the same period the previous year. Garment exports totaled $17.31 billion for the 10 months that ended in April, 11.5 percent more than a year earlier.  In 2012 the textile industry accounted for 45% of all industrial employment in the country.

 

Bangladesh is heavily reliant on garment exports and 90 percent of all export earnings are coming from this one sector. For women, it often represents the best opportunity to work outside the home. According to a World Bank study released in 2008, women in Bangladesh are more employed in the garment industries compare to any other countries. Companies have benefited from the cheap labor offered by women – who tend to work for less than men.

Relying on this garment sectors, Bangladesh has been a development success story. High poverty rate is falling fast. Country is making rapid improvements in nutrition, health, education and women’s employment. Literacy and life expectancy are improving. The present mortality rate of 4.6 percent was used to be far worse in 20 years ago, which was 12 percent.

If the goal is to help Bangladeshi workers, then not buying from Bangladesh would be a terrible strategy. Of course, one then has to think carefully about what (alternative) strategies would enable workers to gain better protection. Nobel laureate and pioneer of micro credit Dr. Muhammad Yunus says "there is no sense" in foreign firms "leaving a country which has benefited a great deal from their business.”

Boycotts do nothing to challenge the implied market-consumer relationship. By not considering capitalism as a system it fails to understand why factories are built cheaply and why workers are paid the lowest wages in the world. It is not simply because they are evil. It is because the system requires as much in order for companies to operate especially as markets become saturated and profit begins to fall.

Like Professor Yunus, Pope Francis of Vatican City added to pressure for change in his toughest remarks on workers' rights, an indication he planned to make social justice a plank of his pontificate. "Living on 38 Euros ($50) a month - that was the pay of these people who died. That is called slave labor," Francis said.

As of May 17, 2013 in response to the Rana Plaza tragedy, more than 30 of the world's leading apparel companies — including Benetton, PVH, Abercrombie & Fitch, H&M, Inditex (Zara), Marks & Spencer and Tesco, signed an agreement to protect the safety and lives of that Bangladeshi workers, who make the companies' products. The signatory firms have made a legally binding five-year commitment to establish a monitoring regime in which workers and their unions will participate, and to pay enough money into the system to fix the problems it uncovers. While Gap — the world's third-largest apparel company — has refused to join, citing concerns about liability related to the agreement's provision for legal enforcement through arbitration, Wal-Mart announced that they would conduct its own initiative.

In addition, the British retailer Primark said it would compensate victims who worked for its supplier, by providing long-term aid for children who lost parents, financial aid for those injured and payments to families of the deceased. Companies like J.C. Penney, Benetton, and Sears -- all of which source clothes from Bangladesh -- have reaffirmed their support for worker safety and monitoring conditions in the country.

 

Although a combined strategy and initiative should be taken by importers, factory owners, the Bangladeshi government, and the garments manufacturing association, but does the Bangladeshi government feel its legal obligations and responsibilities towards its people? While improvements in wages, working conditions and building standards – all of which Bangladesh can afford and can change the life of millions of people, but working conditions in the $20 billion industry are grim, a result of government corruption, desperation for jobs, industry indifference, and not taking legal actions against those who are responsible for wrongdoings. According to research by the advocacy group International Labor Rights Forum, at least 1,800 garment workers have been killed in factory fires and building collapses in Bangladesh since 2005.

 

Millions of workers in Bangladesh put their lives and limbs on the line every day on the factory floors to serve the world community. Something tangible should be done so that we don't need to count any more loss of life.

 

Ripan Kumar Biswas is a freelance writer based in New York

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