The tragedy in Dhaka has rightly focused attention on the appalling safety record of the sweatshops in which much of the West’s clothing and consumer gadgets are produced. Many have already called for a boycott of the cheap clothing sold by Primark and the rest. Part of me is instinctively in sympathy; part of me also holds back. It reminds me of a debate during my student days: should we eat South African oranges? For some, it was a simple matter. How could we possibly eat anything produced under apartheid? For others, it was more nuanced. If we didn’t buy South African oranges, what would be the effect on South African farm-workers and their families? As far as I can recall, we never settled the question either way.
I am doubtful whether a boycott of cheap clothing would do anything per se to improve the living and working conditions of Bangladeshi workers. For one thing, I think it would be difficult to achieve. There are too many people struggling at the economic margins of the West who will buy what they can afford, not what they would like to be able to afford. Retailers know that, and half the skill of retailing is to match price-point and production-cost in such a way that a profit can be made. Simplistic? Yes, but we live under a capitalist system where making a profit is a necessary part of the economic cycle. Even if a boycott were achieved, what would it do for the thousands of Bangladeshis who rely on the meagre income they obtain from their work in the garment factories? Without an alternative in place, they would surely starve.
The fact that something is difficult is no argument that nothing should be done. Anyone familiar with Catholic Social Teaching knows that fairness and sustainability in the workplace are moral imperatives, not just nice, middle-class add-ons. I don’t know what solution to propose but I am saddened that it takes yet another disaster of this kind to focus attention on the problem. We are talking about human beings, not abstractions. As we pray for those killed or injured and their families, let us also ask the Holy Spirit to inspire us with whatever is necessary to change things for the better. ‘No man is an island,’ said Donne. No indeed; and we in the West are diminished by the death of our brothers and sisters in Dhaka.
St Mark’s Day
Today is the feast of St Mark. Why not make a point of reading through St Mark’s Gospel (it is quite short) from start to finish, and preferably out of doors. You’ll notice, among other things, what a delight he takes in the natural world, e.g. mentioning the green grass on which the disciples sat where other evanglists state more baldly that ‘they sat down’.