It’s thought that over 1000 people died after a garment factory in Bangladesh collapsed. They say that guns don’t kill people: bullets do. Maybe in this case t-shirts don’t kill people but garment buyers do.
This is nearly a third the number of people who died in the terrorist attacks of 9/11. But the cause was not terrorism, it was not global jihad. Perhaps if it was it might be easier to explain, it might be easier to put the tragedy at a distance with a clearly defined other responsible for the senseless loss of life. Perhaps then we might have an enemy to label and target if we were wont to avenge their deaths.
But apportioning blame in this case is harder. I can wring my hands and reach out for someone somewhere who could have done something different, who could have acted to prevent this tragedy.
I blame the building owner for the unsafe structure.
I blame the manager for making people work there.
I blame the authorities for failing to enforce safety standards.
I blame middle-men for complicated supply chains that obscure responsibility.
I blame shops that sell clothes produced at such a cost.
I blame consumers and the cheap clothes they buy because of cheap labour they ignore.
I blame myself for not noticing the abhorrent and the abusive. I blame myself for using complexity as the crutch of the complicit.
And it doesn’t help.
I can also read articles that tell me wages in urban Bangladesh are double what they were six years ago, and offer more than a subsistent rural lifestyle would provide. I can nod in agreement at the thought that if everyone stopped buying clothes produced in such conditions at such a cost the 4 million garment workers in Bangladesh would be even worse off.
But 1000 people died when a building collapsed. 2500 more were injured, rescued from the rubble as cries reached through crushed concrete. Today the rescuers moved out and the bulldozers start to clear the rubble.
And today a woman was pulled from the wreckage after 17 days entombed in the fallen structure. The redemption of one life is a symbol of hope. Almost a motif of resilience against the greed of corporations; against the ignorance of consumers; against the treatment by employers of workers trapped in a choiceless world.
Is knowing that things could be even worse than their current dire state enough to excuse the status quo? Clothes marketed for our convenience and sold at great cost. Is it enough to realise that stopping buying clothes the price of a cappuccino might actually make things worse?
Of course it isn’t. The complexity of supply chains, and the undesirable consequences of good intentions, cannot be allowed to shunt us into acquiescence. It cannot stop us from taking notice that of the £6 we pay for a t-shirt only two pence goes to the garment worker. Complexity cannot be an excuse for indifference.
We’re not indifferent when a single hoarse cry echoes through layers of mangled building. Hundreds of soldiers and fire-fighters rushed to drag her clear of the rubble. Not indifferent when the chance of saving a life means amputating a hand. Life seems precious in the moments its precarious state is presented to us.
We’re not indifferent when it’s someone we know. We’re not indifferent if they’ve been missing two days or twelve years. Hope isn’t extinguished with the passage of time or tonnes of wrought concrete.
Immediacy conquers indifference.
When we know our actions have an immediate impact for better or worse we weigh them more carefully. We rush into act, or we suddenly halt. We drop everything.
Why then do we let detachment and distance dull our relationship to those who stitch our clothes?