Thursday, June 6, 2013

Garment Affairs Foreign No More

Our friend in Washington, J.C. Derrick, attended a normally-obscure meeting on labor laws today.

Only this meeting wasn't about America's labor laws.  It was about how America might be able to force Bangladesh into making sure its garment factories are safe for employees to stitch together the clothing they make for us.

New Jersey Senator Bob Menendez, who recently had his own brush with infamy, leads the United States Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, which held today's hearing.  Menendez wants to threaten the Bangladeshi government with changes to a current tariff agreement, but experts are dubious as to how effective that might be relative to factory safety.  In the past year, 43 incidents at factories in that impoverished country have killed 1,200 workers.  Normally, the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations doesn't dabble in labor issues, but the massive collapse of the Rana Plaza manufacturing facility in April has prompted soul-searching all over the West, where consumers are feeling pangs of guilt over our role in encouraging profits over safety.

And at its heart, the question of worker safety in Bangladesh is not a labor issue, even if Menendez and his fellow senators think their committee can help prod progress by treating it as one.  To the extent that labor issues are economic issues, however, then we're getting closer to the crux of this problem.  And yes, we Western consumers need to realize that our demand for cheap clothing is a problem people in other countries are having to deal with.  Our consumerism drives a thirst for products, and the less we have to pay for these products, the more of them we can buy.  Wal Mart did not become the world's retailing juggernaut by marking stuff up.  They've forced their suppliers to slice manufacturing costs to the bone - and then some - so that even though profit margins are slim on every item, mammoth revenues can be achieved through volume selling.

Not that Wal Mart isn't the only company to blame for this new world order in retailing.  But, as the biggest, it shoulders more responsibility for the problems created by this system.  "To whom much is given, much is required," remember?

Indeed, Wal Mart and its fellow retailers are only playing to the cravings of the consuming public.  While there are plenty of people out there who willingly pay a pretentious premium so they can enjoy the status of luxury shopping at the Saks Fifth Avenues of this world, even more people revel in the savings they believe they're achieving for themselves by buying life's essentials - and a few cheap luxuries - at rock-bottom prices.  And hey - who doesn't like saving money?  Not paying more than you have to for something is being smart and savvy, right?  Even the Bible teaches that it's good to be wise with money.

There is virtue in value.

The problem, however, is finding the value.

Is there value in being able to buy clothing at a low price, even if that low price means that somebody in some foreign country whom you'll never meet in this life is paid a pittance for making it?  Granted, living costs are drastically lower in many of these Majority World countries where much of our clothing is made today.  But what about the standard of living in these countries?  Would you want to live in the communities these people have to live in?  Places where clean water, electricity, and indoor plumbing are luxuries?  Places where you work in buildings with dubious structural integrity?  Places where corruption and graft values human life only for how much money it can make for you?

Can we simply shrug our shoulders and say that those people should be glad they have a job at all?

Can we really afford to keep guzzling this flow of cheaply-made stuff, knowing that costs are incessantly being drilled ever lower, meaning that once manufacturers are forced to build structurally-sound buildings for their factories, they'll simply decamp to some other country where safety laws aren't as rigorous?  After all, that's what happened here in the United States, when all of the garment manufacturers began leaving for Asia decades ago.  Bangladesh may be making the headlines right now, but what about Vietnam, Cambodia, Nepal, Sri Lanka, and other countries desperate for any scraps from the West's economic table?

Menendez and his fellow senators may score some political points for appearing to hold concern for Bangladeshi garment workers, but it's the people who vote for these politicians who share some of the blame for this burgeoning humanitarian dilemma.

I own several items of clothing that have "Made in Bangladesh" tags.  I bought them before I ever even really knew where Bangladesh is.  But now, whenever I put them on, I feel kinda dirty, knowing the conditions that whomever stitched it together likely was working under.

Regular readers of my blog know that I don't shop at Wal Mart.  I buy my clothes from places like LL Bean, Eddie Bauer, and Dillards, because they carry tall-man sizes.  But these are also not low-priced, bottom-line retailers.  Chances are, they're having their stuff made in Bangladesh so they can enjoy an even cushier profit margin than Wal Mart.  So again, this is not just Wal Mart's problem, or even a cheap-price problem.  And even if you boycott clothing made in Bangladesh,  how do you know retailers are learning the lesson you're trying to teach them?  The only people who get hurt are the folks in Bangladesh who desperately need any type of job.  Even a job in a building that could kill them.

So, what's the solution?  How do you fix the multiple levels of greed?  There's greed on the part of us Western consumers, but there's also the greed of Western retailers, of foreign manufacturers, and the building owners and government inspectors in these far-off places.

You've likely heard the phrase "a stitch in time saves nine."  It means that if you see a problem now, it's better to fix the problem now, than wait until it gets worse.  When you find a rip in your clothing, and stitch it together, the rip won't have a chance to grow, requiring a larger repair job.  What is the stitch that could help fix this problem of worker safety in foreign garment factories?

Even though I'm doubtful that a senate committee can help, perhaps just the fact that Washington is still talking about this issue is a good way to keep it alive in our national consciousness.

After all, better a "foreign relations" problem than outright ambivalence towards our global neighbors.

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