Tuesday 28 May 2013

Boycotts Are Bad For Bangladesh

Multinational companies faced with the inevitable blowback from their involvement in the Rana Plaza disaster could be forgiven for considering retreat to be the safest course of action.
Getting out of Bangladesh makes all kinds of sense. Let's face it. The old saw of "all publicity is good publicity" simply doesn't apply here. If your labels have been found in the rubble, then you need to act quickly to avert the inevitable damage to your carefully-considered brand.
The smart option would seem to be to jump ship and move on. Disney have already announced that their clothes and toys will no longer be sourced from factories in Dhaka. The EU are thinking about punitive trade measures to force Bangladesh on line with international heath and safety standards. In that sort of toxic environment, and with your own customers boycotting you, wouldn't you think the best option would be to pack up shop and leave?
But leaving Bangladesh is the worst thing that the multinationals could do now. Their business is the lynchpin of the country's economy, bringing in billions that Bangladesh can ill afford to lose.
When you consider that 3.6 million Bangladeshi workers are employed in the garment industry, 80% of which are women who are the sole source of income for their families, the notion of Mango, Primark and the like leaving the country becomes a double blow. Workers have been maltreated for decades as the multinationals quietly allowed worker abuse and poor workplace safety to become the norm. When the companies were found out, all of a sudden they're packing up to leave leave, taking the money, the one reason that anyone would put up with a 12-hour working day in a sweltering factory, away with them. A lousy job is still a job, and if that's all you can get, then having it evaporate on you is a weight on top of the burden you already carry. The notion of leaving suddenly looks petulant, cowardly and cruel.
Like it or not, the garment industry in Bangladesh is helping to pull this desperately poor country out of the mire of extreme poverty. It's becoming increasingly urbanised, as rural workers move to the cities in search of a better life. Many, sick of scratching out an existance from the soil, dream of a life as a garment worker. It just goes to show how little we know about life in Bangladesh, and how our calls for boycott, made with the best of intentions, can have potentially disasterous consequences.
So what can we do? Well, we need to tell our High Street shops to make sure that their workers are safely and fairly treated, wherever they are in the world. Insist that they join the growing rollcall of signatories to the Bangladesh Fire Safety Agreement. And make sure we know that they're going to be around to help clean up the mess they helped create. If that means an extra 5p on a t-shirt, then so be it. It's about time we all realised just what the true cost of fast fashion is, and how little it takes to make a real difference to lives which are more closely tied to ours than we might have thought.

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