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Andrew Boozary

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Is the Bangladesh Factory Too Far for Us to Care?

Posted: 04/29/2013 12:00 am

The death toll from the collapse of a garment factory in Bangladesh now stands at over 350 people. The footage of young children holding up pictures of their missing mothers is heart wrenching. And in its aftermath, there too was a manhunt for the owners who ignored any efforts at improving deplorable working conditions. Yet at the risk of committing sociology, why have we not seen the same commitment to the story from the news media? From the world's second largest textile exporter, why aren't "We Stand With Bangladesh" t-shirts out of stock?

In a wonderfully sensitive opening essay, Jian Ghomeshi raised the question of proximity when it came to our response to human tragedies. He pushed on our ability to transport ourselves within the lives of those less fortunate, whether in our own city or across the globe. Distance may have become arbitrary, but how we connect the dots on matters of human suffering may be no less circuitous. We can certainly grieve, and most rightfully so, with the victims of Boston because we can all picture ourselves there. Instantly feeling complete and utter vulnerability. But when it's market forces or the lack of regulations that inflict terror, how are we to feel? When there are seismic global income inequalities, are we so surprised that reactions to human lives lost are not equal? It remains hard for us to imagine working in those quarters or receiving those wages (though economists will quickly and correctly remind us that a dollar in North America is not a dollar in India). Therein may lie the difference. Our role and culpability in the collapse remains unsettling, and the axis of evil in this tragedy not so well delineated.

I do agree that boycotting "Made in Bangladesh" is not the answer, however. Nor is going completely naked. How we first bring accountability for safe and decent working conditions will be pivotal in an ever complicated consumer chain. Rest assured, North Americans continue to exercise individual purchasing power, while our own mix of apathy and a fervent brand culture does make for a thorny situation. Internationally, finding the right mix of policy levers to drive growth is the stuff of domestic elections, and how to better redistribute that growth requires a serious rethinking around the economics of poverty.

A few months back, a friend of mine was elated about his role working for Joe Fresh at a Fashion Week event. I was initially skeptical when I first heard about the launch of a fashion concept coming out of Loblaws (my prediction of Galen Weston Jr. donning hipster garb for an ad never came through). He told me about Joe Fresh's newfound traction in the American market, and I was relegated to calling it a Canadian success story. I now take that back, knowing fully well that many other companies were also implicated with the factory. Joe Fresh will be a true success story if it plays a leading role in raising the standards in Dhaka going forward, not retreating behind empty PR statements and packing up shop to the next lowest producer. We, as Canadians, have to hold them to a higher standard than Walmart.

For the rest of us, it may mean a different sort of solidarity. It may not be escaping from brands completely, but finding meaningful ways to demand better. Signing petitions and speaking up. There probably won't be any "Bangladesh Strong" logos to make loud fashion statements. We'll have to grapple with deeper questions, uncomfortable like the tags that line our shirts.

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  • Bangladeshi garment workers set fire to furniture from a police control room during a protest against the collapse of an eight-story building that housed several garment factories and poor working conditions of the employees, in Dhaka, Bangladesh, Saturday, April 27, 2013. Police in Bangladesh took into custody five people in connection with the collapse of a shoddily-constructed building that collapsed this week, as rescue workers pulled out 19 survivors out of the rubble on Saturday and vowed to continue as long as necessary to find others despite fading hopes. (AP Photo/A.M. Ahad)

  • Bangladeshi policemen walk after chasing garment workers protesting against the collapse of an eight-story building that housed several garment factories and their employees, in Dhaka, Bangladesh, Saturday, April 27, 2013. Police in Bangladesh took into custody five people in connection with the collapse of a shoddily-constructed building that collapsed this week, as rescue workers pulled out 19 survivors out of the rubble on Saturday and vowed to continue as long as necessary to find others despite fading hopes. (AP Photo/A.M. Ahad)

  • A Bangladeshi Muslim rescue worker prays on the rubble of a building that collapsed Wednesday in Savar, near Dhaka, Bangladesh, Saturday, April 27, 2013. Police in Bangladesh arrested two owners of a garment factory in a shoddily-constructed building that collapsed this week, killing at least 324 people, as protests spread to a second city Saturday with hundreds of people throwing stones and setting fire to vehicles. (AP Photo/Kevin Frayer)

  • A girl cries for her missing mother at the site of the garment building factory that collapsed Wednesday in Savar, near Dhaka, Bangladesh, Saturday, April 27, 2013. Police in Bangladesh took five people into custody in connection with the collapse of a shoddily-constructed building this week, as rescue workers pulled 19 survivors out of the rubble on Saturday and vowed to continue as long as necessary to find others despite fading hopes. (AP Photo/Wong Maye-E)

  • Women carry portraits of missing relatives at the site of the garment factory building that collapsed Wednesday, in Savar, near Dhaka, Bangladesh, Saturday, April 27, 2013. Police in Bangladesh took five people into custody in connection with the collapse of a shoddily-constructed building this week, as rescue workers pulled 19 survivors out of the rubble on Saturday and vowed to continue as long as necessary to find others despite fading hopes. (AP Photo/Ismail Ferdous)

  • A man watches while rescue workers search for survivors at a garment factory building that collapsed Wednesday in Savar, near Dhaka, Bangladesh, Saturday, April 27, 2013. Police in Bangladesh took five people into custody in connection with the collapse of a shoddily-constructed building this week, as rescue workers pulled 19 survivors out of the rubble on Saturday and vowed to continue as long as necessary to find others despite fading hopes.(AP Photo/Ismail Ferdous)

  • A Bangladeshi man holds a picture of a relative missing in a building that collapsed Wednesday hold pictures of loved ones at a makeshift morgue in a schoolyard in Savar, near Dhaka, Bangladesh, Saturday, April 27, 2013. Police in Bangladesh arrested two owners of a garment factory in a shoddily-constructed building that collapsed this week, killing at least 324 people, as protests spread to a second city Saturday with hundreds of people throwing stones and setting fire to vehicles. (AP Photo/Kevin Frayer)

  • A Bangladeshi rescue worker directs others as they search in the rubble of a building that collapsed Wednesday in Savar, near Dhaka, Bangladesh, Saturday, April 27, 2013. Police in Bangladesh arrested two owners of a garment factory in a shoddily-constructed building that collapsed this week, killing at least 324 people, as protests spread to a second city Saturday with hundreds of people throwing stones and setting fire to vehicles. (AP Photo/Kevin Frayer)

  • Relatives mourn a victim at the site where an eight-story building housing several garment factories collapsed in Savar, near Dhaka, Bangladesh, Wednesday, April 24, 2013. The building collapsed near Bangladesh's capital Wednesday morning, killing dozens of people and trapping many more in the rubble, officials said. (AP Photo/ A.M. Ahad)

  • People and rescuers gather after an eight-story building housing several garment factories collapsed in Savar, near Dhaka, Bangladesh, Wednesday, April 24, 2013. Dozens were killed and many more are feared trapped in the rubble. (AP Photo/ A.M. Ahad)

  • People and rescuers gather after an eight-story building housing several garment factories collapsed in Savar, near Dhaka, Bangladesh, Wednesday, April 24, 2013. Dozens were killed and many more are feared trapped in the rubble. (AP Photo/ A.M. Ahad)

  • Rescuers assist an injured woman after an eight-story building housing several garment factories collapsed in Savar, near Dhaka, Bangladesh, Wednesday, April 24, 2013. Dozens were killed and many more are feared trapped in the rubble. (AP Photo/ A.M. Ahad)

  • Rescue workers carry a victim's body after an eight-story building housing several garment factories collapsed in Savar, near Dhaka, Bangladesh, Wednesday, April 24, 2013. Dozens were killed and many more are feared trapped in the rubble. (AP Photo/ A.M. Ahad)

  • Rescue workers look for survivors after an eight-story building housing several garment factories collapsed in Savar, near Dhaka, Bangladesh, Wednesday, April 24, 2013. Dozens were killed and many more are feared trapped in the rubble. (AP Photo/ A.M. Ahad)

  • A man who was trapped in an collapsed eight-story building housing several garment factories is reccued in Savar, near Dhaka, Bangladesh, Wednesday, April 24, 2013. Dozens were killed and many more are feared trapped in the rubble. (AP Photo/ A.M. Ahad)

  • Rescue workers pull a woman out from the rubbles after an eight-story building housing several garment factories collapsed in Savar, near Dhaka, Bangladesh, Wednesday, April 24, 2013. Dozens were killed and many more are feared trapped in the rubble. (AP Photo/ A.M. Ahad)

  • Rescue workers and people look for survivors after an eight-story building housing several garment factories collapsed in Savar, near Dhaka, Bangladesh, Wednesday, April 24, 2013. Dozens were killed and many more are feared trapped in the rubble. (AP Photo/ A.M. Ahad)

  • Relatives mourn a victim at the site after an eight-story building housing several garment factories collapsed in Savar, near Dhaka, Bangladesh, Wednesday, April 24, 2013. Dozens were killed and many more are feared trapped in the rubble. (AP Photo/ A.M. Ahad)

  • Rescuers carry a woman after an eight-story building housing several garment factories collapsed in Savar, near Dhaka, Bangladesh, Wednesday, April 24, 2013. Dozens were killed and many more are feared trapped in the rubble. (AP Photo/ A.M. Ahad)

  • Rescue workers carry a young victim's body after an eight-story building housing several garment factories collapsed in Savar, near Dhaka, Bangladesh, Wednesday, April 24, 2013. Dozens were killed and many more are feared trapped in the rubble. (AP Photo/ A.M. Ahad)

  • Rescue workers use pieces of clothes to bring down a survivor after an eight-story building housing several garment factories collapsed in Savar, near Dhaka, Bangladesh, Wednesday, April 24, 2013. The building collapsed near Bangladesh's capital Wednesday morning, killing dozens of people and trapping many more in the rubble, officials said. (AP Photo/ A.M. Ahad)

  • A man who was trapped in an eight-story building housing several garment factories is rescued after the structure collapsed in Savar, near Dhaka, Bangladesh, Wednesday, April 24, 2013. The building collapsed near Bangladesh's capital Wednesday morning, killing dozens of people and trapping many more in the rubble, officials said. (AP Photo/ A.M. Ahad)

  • Rescue workers use clothes to bring down survivors and bodies after an eight-story building housing several garment factories collapsed in Savar, near Dhaka, Bangladesh, Wednesday, April 24, 2013. The building collapsed near Bangladesh's capital Wednesday morning, killing dozens of people and trapping many more in the rubble, officials said. (AP Photo/ A.M. Ahad)

 

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