Every year on October 7 workers around the globe recognize the World Day for Decent Work. It reminds us of the current and constant downward pressure placed on workers, as incomes stagnate, as wealth concentrates in the hands of the privileged few and as jobs become more insecure and more precarious.
When an 8-storey building collapsed in Bangladesh in April killing more than 1,100 garment workers, the rescue response was agonizingly slow. Canadians watched their TV screens in disbelief as Bangladeshi friends and relatives struggled to move rubble in search of their loved ones -- work that would have fallen into the hands of capable and well-equipped rescue teams in Canada. So one would hope. Canadians should be aware, however, that in an era when all of us are increasingly prone to both natural and man-made disasters, the federal government has discontinued funding to Canada's primary disaster relief agency.
Canadians are not sitting back any more and taking bad corporate behaviour. We may have arrived at a tipping point where increasingly Canadians who have been shoved, are pushing back. The RBC "fire Canadians" story broke on a weekend. By the start of the week, politicians had heard from constituents across Canada. Over in Bangladesh, a garment factory collapsed in Rana Plaza, killing more than 700. And just because a videographer caught a glimpse of a Joe Fresh clothing label and some editor put that on Canadian television, suddenly Canada's best-known retail leader, Galen G. Weston, was all over the media.
The price of a piece of clothing is not at all indicative of the working conditions of its manufacturer. On top of that, implying (or outright saying) that there is something morally wrong with paying ten dollars for a t-shirt is incredibly classist. The truth is that when brand names charge higher prices for their items, that extra cash usually goes to two places: into the pockets of CEOs and other higher-ups, and into the company's advertising budget.
Last weekend, renewed demonstrations calling for better pay and working conditions broke out and are continuing. Because the garment industry makes up the core of the Bangladeshi economy, its leaders and business class cannot afford to ignore the internal calls for change. In fact, whether they listen depends on the demand for clothes made in Bangladesh being sustained. A boycott would work against this outcome.
People take clothing for granted but producing a simple garment is incredibly complex. Consider what goes into a simple cotton shirt. Cheap clothing is cheap partially because it consists of low-grade material. Bangladeshi garment workers earn 18 cents an hour for work in substandard facilities, working for Western garment companies with eyes trained on profits. What can we do?
The death toll from the collapse of a garment factory in Bangladesh now stands at over 350 people. In a wonderfully sensitive essay, Jian Ghomeshi raised the question of proximity when it came to our response to human tragedies. Distance may have become arbitrary, but how we draw the lines to connect our dots to one another has not. We can easily grieve, and most rightfully so, with the victims of Boston because we can all picture ourselves there. A feeling of complete and utter vulnerability. But when it's market forces or the lack of regulations that inflict terror, how are we to feel?
The only way for us to end global hunger is for governments, non-governmental organizations, business and the community work together to implement solutions we know will work. I left Bangladesh knowing that I want to help bring about an end to global hunger. So my family and I are going to take a few simple steps.
Against the advice of our local guide in Bangladesh I tried this dish from a street food vendor. The dish is called Jhalmuri -- pronounced Chahl Mooree. It is Indian Puffed Rice and is a fun, very quick and very flavourful snack food. This dish is a great snack for football season and to spice things up for the chilly weather we are experiencing now in Canada. This recipe is my best attempt at trying to duplicate what I had on the streets of Dhaka.
Today is World Food Day. Every child has a right to food. I recently returned from Bangladesh where I lead a group of Canadian supporters as we visited maternal, newborn, and child health and nutrition programs. The trip once again demonstrated to me how sustainable change requires the engagement of donor and local government, communities, and civil society.