It’s easy to blame them. Faceless corporate drones and scheming capitalists hiding behind glossy brands and ruining lives. The world’s worst industrial accident in three decades. A thousand dead so far. A twisted mass of rubble and bodies that shocks but not as much as it should. We tell ourselves someone would do something if things were that bad but… labels are explicit about country of origin. It’s not a huge leap to imagine the conditions.
I know first-hand. I was one of them. Stood in factories similar to those atRanaPlaza– because many factories are similar, Rana is not the exception – and placed orders worth millions. Millions to my employers, and sometimes to factory owners. Not millions to those who actually do the work, who might share rooms in factory compounds, leaving behind families in even less privileged regions, or live in crowded shacks with dirt floors. Who do as they are told: long hours and whatever else is required when deadlines loom. I toured factories deemed safe, above average, approved by people with clip boards and local knowledge. Some were high tech, brightly lit, efficient, reassuring places. Some were not. There were also no guarantees work would take place in the sites I was shown. Sub-contracting, home working, forced labour; all possible despite checks and paperwork.
And I had to choose, making decisions based on what I’d been shown and sometimes what I’d insisted on seeing, learning what to ask and what wasn’t being said. I knew what counted as ‘good’. This factory, please. Cue technologists, inspectors, quality control, financial and production planning, forms, assessments, assurances. Cue also muted reports, on occasion, of corruption, bribes and prison sentences filtering back through hearsay. Amber warnings, red marks, signs all was not well. That a factory was being ‘worked with’ to improve. The idea it was necessary to give ‘these people’ a chance to earn a living; yes, it would be messy, standards would be different but in the end it was progress for them, and we well-meaning western people believed that.
Measured on sales, margin and efficiency, ethics were rarely mentioned. Everyone wanted to be ethical, of course – who wouldn’t? But profit was priority. This meant keeping customers – yes, you – happy, and that seemed to mean cheap fashion and superficial reassurances. We were not expected to be the world’s conscience nor connect our day-to-day decisions with the lives of people far away.
I had a conscience though, annoying God-botherer that I was. To the eye-rolling disdain of some, I became a nuisance. Decided I could justify being there if I could change things. Insisted on representing the company at external forums which attempted to improve conditions. Asked questions at high levels. Requested access to private areas in factories. Used my position as I progressed to try and educate the next enthusiastic young intake who weren’t aware how a one line email changing a shipping date could damage or even end lives.
It was impossible to know what difference any of this made.
I eventually left the industry but I don’t hear of progress. Decision makers don’t visit often factories now. They go to showrooms and air-conditioned rooms in five star hotels, have samples presented at their desks. Reality is even further away.
I’m not sure how many deaths it will take before things change because the truth is it won’t change without you. You matter more. You knew that already, didn’t you? Yes, support campaigns and tweet your outrage by all means, but then act differently. Don’t sign petitions and then go back to shops you know are working this way (which is many of them) because until sales are affected they won’t do things differently. Not really. Tokenism, heartfelt statements, insistence they are working towards change is what you’ll get from some. And they’ll kind of mean it. They’re not bad people; they are people legally required to focus on profit. Others, who distance themselves, denying knowledge and accountability, laying the blame on unethical factory owners and market forces, have even further to go before they will admit complicity. They don’t want to change. They accept the world as it is. They don’t think they need to be part of global reform. And they think you’ll stand for it; that you’ll forget and be lured back. They know they won’t really have to work too hard to convince you. Habit, convenience and culture will eventually silence conscience.
Tell them it’s not true– and then act like it.