By Russ Jowell
Today marks a somber anniversary in the history of Bangladesh’s garment industry. It was exactly one year ago today that over 110 people perished in a fire at the Tazreen Fashions factory in the Ashulia region outside of Dhaka. While, sadly, the country had experienced numerous other deadly factory incidents in the months and years leading up to Tazreen, the events of November 24, 2012 seemed to strike an exceptionally loud chord with those in the developed world connected to apparel and garment manufacturing. The incident also seemed to trigger one of the loudest calls for stakeholder groups connected to Bangladesh’s sourcing industry to take steps to shore up safety in the country’s thousands of garment factories (a call which would be made significantly louder in the following months because of the collapse of the Rana Plaza building). In the ensuing 12 months since the incident, many actions have indeed been taken and much has changed in the landscape of Bangladesh sourcing. Bangladesh’s Ministry of Labor and Employment joined with the International Labor Organization to form the National Tripartite Plan of Action on Fire Safety, European and American retailers have formed their own individual coalitions aimed specifically at improving safety in Bangladesh, the Foreign Affairs Committee of the U.S. Senate held its first labor-focused hearing in over a decade about conditions in Bangladesh, and numerous retailers have committed to double down on their efforts to secure their supply chains. While it is commendable that so many are pitching in to augment safety improvement efforts, care should be taken that these groups do not lose sight of their moral compass and become blinded by the glitter of the “charity spotlight.” In other words, everyone who wants to contribute to this effort should be motivated by the desire to prop up the Bangladeshi workers who are so crucial to the global apparel market and not by a desire to prop up their own name.
What is this charity spotlight? Put simply, it is the decision to participate in a humanitarian effort or cause with the hope that you or your organization will get photographed, acknowledged, or recognized simply for being there. It usually entails that person or organization expressing their desire to help with a certain cause or effort only as long as the media spotlight is on it, then moving on to something else (sometimes to another cause getting the media spotlight). When one of the most powerful tornadoes in history recently demolished the small town of Moore, Oklahoma, the entire U.S. population was glued to their TV screens by images of chaos, turmoil, and utter devastation that were coming out of the area. Federal emergency management officials responded swiftly, but many of the people impacted in Oklahoma and elsewhere began to worry how long the assistance would last. After all, Moore, Oklahoma was a far cry from any major U.S. city in terms of prestige and clout. Yet the people who lived there were no different than their urban counterparts in that they were all just as devastated by the sudden loss of their homes and lives as would be the people of Americas’ biggest cities if it had happened to them. In an effort to ease the concerns of local citizens, the head of the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) gave an interview in which he vowed, “We don’t leave here when the cameras leave. We stay here and get the job done.” In a sense, what Fugate is saying here is that rebuilding a community fraught with destructive disaster takes the combined efforts of a wide coalition of people who are genuinely dedicated to making a difference and willing to get their hands dirty as opposed to “pretenders” who are only hoping to get their logo’s photographed among the relief team, then leaving. This sentiment could not be truer when it comes to improving working conditions in Bangladesh. Because so many stakeholders from so many different countries and regions are involved in sourcing garments from the country, responding to any crisis or problem requires an effort that is just as multi-faceted. Everybody, including the Accord, the Alliance, NGOs like WRAP, and governments from around the world, have a role to play in making Bangladesh a better place. But as we pause to remember those who perished last year, we must also remember that saving the lives of others and improving working standards for a country that is so critical to one of the world’s largest industries is not always a task of celebrity, but it is a work of unity.