On April 24 a huge building collapsed near Dhaka, Bangladesh killing 1,129 garment workers. It was the deadliest disaster in the history of the global garment industry.
You probably saw the story. And you might be asking, “Why are you bringing up this piece of ‘old news?'” The reason is simple: I can’t get those garment workers out of my mind—even though it’s been almost eight weeks. Their story haunts me. And I’ve learned to pay attention to things that “haunt me.”
Many of the workers were young women from rural areas. They worked for minimum wages (about $37 a month) in this huge and unsafe building making clothes for people in the so-called “developed” countries—like me. This particular place made clothes for the Walt Disney Company (among others). In my mind I see rows and rows of women hunched over sewing machines making smiley Mickey Mouse shirts under awful conditions. It is precisely their low wages and dangerous working conditions that make it possible for me to enjoy inexpensive clothing—like T-shirts, underwear, slacks, sweaters, jackets, shoes. This situation appalls me.
Here’s a concrete example of what I’m talking about. The other day I bought a pair of sneakers. They were cheap ($14.95). At the check out, the shoes rang up for only $9.87. They were on sale. This means I got them for ten bucks! Later when I looked a
the shoes (which were made in China), I thought of those garment workers in Bangladesh. I found myself wondering, “How can this retailer afford to sell these shoes for only $10?” I knew the partial answer to that question: cheap labor. Then I asked, “Whose hands made these? And at what real cost—not to the manufacturer nor to me, but to the worker who made them?” I found myself thinking, “I would be willing to pay more for these shoes and more for other items if I knew that the extra money was going toward higher wages and safer working conditions.” (You might be thinking: “Easy for you to say. You’re a nun! You’re not raising a family.” And that’s true.)
Added to this is the guilt I also feel for not buying things made in America. After all, I want to support the jobs of my fellow Americans. As I was folding my laundry recently, I checked out the labels. I found only a few items made in the USA. The others were made in China, Vietnam, Thailand, El Salvador, Guatemala, Singapore, Indonesia, Mexico, and yes, Bangladesh. I can’t help worrying about the working conditions under which these items were made.
So where am I going with all of this? For one thing, I feel compelled to educate myself concerning this issue of “the high cost of low prices.” I have checked out some of the websites of large retailers and read their ethical standards. Then I read some critiques of their standards and practices. As a consumer I do have some clout. I can pressure retailers in the USA to be more mindful of the working conditions of their partner manufacturers–whether in the US or outside of the US. Retailers can decide, for example, to do business only with manufacturers who sign on to the Better Work program. And I can decide to buy only from those who do.
I have also written several personal letters to some of the retailers I buy from expressing my horror over the Bangladesh catastrophe and my personal concern about the working conditions of the manufacturing companies they do business with. I want them to know this issue is important to me. Writing a letter is a small act, I know, but at least it is an act.
I also continue to pray—sometimes in words like these:
Creator God, haunt me. Haunt me with the faces of those individuals who are suffering and are in desperate need. Let me never grow deaf to their anguished cries for help. Let me never get away with thinking, “It’s not my problem.” Or “The situation is too complex to do anything about it.” Or “Someone with knowledge and expertise should do something about that unjust situation.” Instead haunt me. Haunt me with the truth that although I am only one person, I am still one person and I can do something. Haunt me with the reality that all of us on this beautiful planet are members of one human family. And what affects one person sooner or later affects all of us. Haunt me, God. Please haunt me. Amen.
Are there any situations or issues that haunt you?