“That’s terrible,” my wife gasped when I showed her the photo.
I said, “So do you still want to shop at Walmart?”
Her gaze remained on the TV when she replied, “Well, you see if you can afford not to.”
And this is the essential problem, isn’t it? Like any rational actor, we respond to price signals. And like most people, this is all my wife—who is certainly not without mercy—is doing. The grim image of two people crushed to death, their bodies turned ash grey with cement dust in the ruins of a collapsed Bangladesh garment factory, has only a transitory effect.
I suspect the tragedy must have had about the same effect on the ethics professor (disclosure: I edited his work, including this piece, while I was employed as an editor at Canadian Business Online, and we had a back and forth on this back then, too) who authored “Bangladesh, Joe Fresh and the burden of responsibility,” and this was probably without ever seeing any images as graphic as the one I plucked from Counterpunch (the mainstream media has been curiously absent of these, choosing instead to go with one bloodless, indecipherable shot after another of smashed concrete, twisted metal and covered corpses). He declared how awful it was that there had been yet another tragedy, but that he was going to be shopping at Joe Fresh this weekend anyway. Joe Fresh was one of the Canadian brands found to have been a customer of this factory.
He offered a couple of reasons why, including the usual “we’re lifting them out of poverty” canard. However, his key point was that we in the West aren’t responsible. But I wonder, if not us, who? What is stopping us from refusing to do business with countries whose labor standards are so lax that hundreds are immolated by preventable fires and smashed by preventable buildings?
How is it that we feel responsible enough to impose sanctions and no-fly zones on Iraq, North Korea and Iran, but aver that in Bangladesh there’s nothing we can do? How is it that some of the banks that admitted to money laundering and price fixing were fined, however little, by our regulators but the companies that make our clothes at the cost of all these lives are somehow beyond the reach of action?
Is it that there’s nothing we can do, or that we just don’t want to do anything?
If we can respond to price signals in choosing where we shop, and we can respond to political signals in determining with which countries we have any relations at all, why can’t we respond to life and death signals in choosing with whom we do business? We can’t, for example, remove a preferential tariff or charge a higher one as a penalty? The brands being supplied by these factories can’t refuse to do business with them until and unless they bring their practices up to standards that don’t involve death by fire and building?
Here is the photo I showed my wife:
This is a signal, I think.
Let’s leave aside the body we can’t fully see and whose sex we can’t tell (although something about the slenderness of the arm and the gold bracelet makes me think it was a young woman), but we can see the other man quite clearly. There is a trickle of blood frozen at one closed eye and his arms reach out as if he’d been trying to embrace the other person.
I wonder, how did he go? Was he mercifully knocked out by falling concrete before his ribcage was crushed? Or did he have time to ponder his situation as the weight pressed down on him, squeezing out all the air? Did he cry in the dark and the choking dust, surrounded by moaning and wailing and screaming, thinking about all the life he was going to miss? Did he curse the poverty that made this death trap seem like his one way out?
I don’t know. But I do know what we did. We looked at it and thought it was terrible. We looked at it and thought, “Oh well, this isn’t on me. I think there’s a sale on at Joe Fresh this weekend.” We get to go on living, comfortably, at $5.99 a pair.
And here’s an excerpt from a media report on the aftermath of the tragedy:
For five days after the building collapsed, rescue teams had retrieved corpses and survivors, but not her son and daughter. Tears on her cheeks, she began to shout: at a soldier sweating beneath a hard hat, at the shattered building, at her god, and finally at her children, calling out their names, beckoning to them, “Today, I’m here! But you haven’t come back!”
Our response, courtesy of our ethics professor: “… there are people in developing countries who only have jobs because people in the industrialized West buy clothes from retailers who subcontract to manufacturers in places like Bangladesh.”
What a miserable, shitty bunch of people we are.
The author’s comment is doubly strange because it’s answering a question that wasn’t asked. No one was questioning whether or not the Bangladeshis have a job. The question is, given that they have a job, what is the nature of the working conditions in that job and can they be improved? We could do plenty about that. Plenty.
One of the long-running hallmarks of our supply-side culture is that we’re routinely lectured on the death of personal responsibility. Yet here’s an opportunity for our businesses to demonstrate some, but they and their defenders say no. It’s on someone else, it’s not on us. But of course it’s us. Who else could it be but us?