The last 6 months have been very hard on the people of Bangladesh. It all began back on November 24, 2012, when the Tazreen Fashions factory, just outside the capital city of Dhaka, caught fire and claimed the lives of over 100 people. Since then, numerous other factory incidents have taken the lives of dozens of innocent Bangladeshis, including a fire at the Smart Garments factory in late January and the collapse of the Rana Plaza building in April, also near Dhaka. Each of these incidents demonstrates the disastrous effects of a country whose economic infrastructure has been pushed to the brink in an effort to climb the mountain of prosperity. They have also served to add more fuel to the firestorm of debate over the harsh conditions many workers face in Bangladesh and elsewhere around the world, including how we, as concerned young citizens, can fix the problem. In light of this, one might be inclined to simply resort to that most loved protest method of all, boycott. But before you log on to Facebook to warn your friends to avoid the local mall, there are a few things I would like you to consider.
Dateline, 1971. Bangladesh has just declared its independence from Pakistan and is trying to establish its identity as an independent state. At this same time, a group of businessmen from South Korea’s Daewoo Industries are looking for a way around the export quotas imposed on their country. The company established a partnership with Bangladeshi-firm Desh Garments, Inc., to make clothes and even brought some Desh supervisors to their South Korea factory for training, thus creating the export-oriented readymade garment industry in Bangladesh. Less than a year after the partnership was established, about 115 of the 130 managers at the Desh factory took the knowledge and skills they had gained from Daewoo and started their own enterprises The country’s export garment industry has been growing ever since.
There is little argument to the notion that life in a Bangladeshi garment factory can be rough by American standards. You would be hard pressed to find a factory that offers its employees free cooking classes, community gardens, or complimentary dry cleaning (like Google), on-demand ping pong and fitness classes (like LivingSocial), or a fully-rented cruise ship for a company retreat (like law firm DLA Piper), but what you will find are the seedlings of prosperity. The readymade garment industry of Bangladesh has been an economic boon for the country and its citizens. It has allowed Bangladesh to become a world leader in producing and exporting to the rest of the world a tangible product that is constantly in high demand (something that the U.S. is struggling to do in these days!) This demand is mostly driven by orders from major western retailers, including Wal-Mart, H&M, and Abercrombie & Fitch, among MANY others. The industry accounts for the vast majority of Bangladesh’s export earnings, bringing in billions of dollars in export revenue, and has provided decent, steady jobs to 10 million people, the vast majority of whom are young women. While wages are admittedly still among the lowest in the world, they have been rising in recent years thanks in large part to the collective demands of workers who have also recently gained more freedom to organize. Boycotting the major fashion chains would effectively reverse all the progress that has been made. It would halt the steady, albeit slow, climb up the mountain of prosperity for Bangladesh. So what can you do? Call these brands; write to their buying representatives and demand that they do more to protect the people who are making their products. As any mountain climber will tell you, ascending a mountain is a challenging task with many bumps along the way. The mountain of prosperity is no different, but the top can, and should, be reached by all!