06 May 2013

Why Bangladesh matters to Arsenal fans

A quick word: this is not about Arsenal directly in the sense that I'm analyzing a match, a player's performance, or where we find ourselves on the table. There'll be time enough for that.  For now, it's time to turn our attention, if you haven't already, to the garment-factory tragedy in Bangladesh, where the collapse of a building has killed more than 600 workers nearly 700 people. The death toll continues to rise as rescue workers scour the rubble. It comes on the heels of a fire that killed 112 at another factory in November. While I can't prove to you that either one of these factories produces Arsenal jerseys (something that would be difficult for most anyone to prove, given the dodgy labeling practices at such facilities), it is worth pointing out that Nike, one of Arsenal's sponsors, one whose iconic swoosh logo appears opposite the Arsenal crest on our jerseys, does subcontract a fair amount of its jersey-manufacturing to Bangladesh and other countries with similarly lax worker-protection laws. As a result, if the tragedy itself hasn't yet struck your conscience, consider the financial connection. One of our key sponsors has a connection to this tragedy and increases its profit-margin as a result. Many of us probably own Arsenal apparel made in Bangladesh or in some other country under similar conditions.

Don't worry. I'm not whipping out a Guy Fawkes mask and mixing Molotov cocktails as I prepare to join some anarcho-syndicalist collective bent on destroying capitalism. All I'm saying is that this tragedy should spark us to do somethingwrite a letter to Nike asking them to improve working conditions anywhere their products are made. Contact the Arsenal board asking them to do the same. Ask the government of Bangladesh to fully-enforce the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, which it has signed with some reservations. When you buy a Nike product, whether or not it's an Arsenal jersey, ask the store if it was made in Bangladesh. It's not a boycott; it's just a way of following up on and encouraging people to take an interest, to pressure Nike and other corporations to set and observe minimum standards of safety, and perhaps wages, for those who make their products. Insist that Nike sign on to and support the plan created by the International Labor Organization and the government of Bangladesh to improve worker safety.

The average worker in Bangladesh earns about $38/£24 a month. Spending money on absolutely nothing on anything elsenot food, not shelter, not anythinga Bangladeshi factory worker would have to work more than two months to buy the jersey he or she just made. To keep things in perspective, though, that is still far higher than many other occupations, and these jobs are highly desirable, not just for the money, but for the prestige of being able to say "I make Nike jerseys" or "I make H&M shirts". These jobs are actually vital to Bangladesh's economy and the eventual creation of a middle class, so for Nike to pull out would be a terrible mistake. Disney apparently pulled out in March, but all this does is take jobs out of the country. People need jobs, so the answer lies in improving the working conditions, not in withdrawing from the country.

Unfortunately, it's a crazy, tangled web. Some corporations are going to claim that there's no way for them to know or control where their garments are made, saying there are just too many layers of subcontractors vendors and and agents to sift through. To an extent, that's true. However, it's not like the factories themselves or their owners are invisible. Monitoring these factories is not impossible. A good-faith effort, a rigorous protocol with suitable financial support, has been proposed by the ILO, but this won't even be considered by Bangladesh's  parliament for another month. It's unclear how much support corporations will give to proposal, so consumers like us must continue to apply pressure.

All too often, a tragedy like this fades from the headlines and from our memories, and the conditions that led to it are allowed to fester while some other issue arises. We assume it's been taken care of, or we just forget. This tragedy, like so many others, differs from tsunamis and earthquakes in that every step in the sequence that led up to it was taken by a human being, sometimes making a conscious decision, sometimes an uninformed one, sometimes not deciding at all. Therefore, it is up to us to do whatever we can, however small, to change that. Yeah, the clothing will be a bit more expensive because the corporations will simply pass along any new costs to consumers.

If that chafes you a little, go back to the video or find a slide-show or two. Remember we're not just talking about the hundreds who died or the hundreds more who have been injured or maimed or their families. We're talking about millions of people, not just in Bangladesh, but also in China and Vietnam and India and anywhere people have little choice but to work in perilous conditions for roughly a dollar, euro, or pound a day so the rest of us can save a few on this year's new kit.

Let's hope that this is Bangladesh's Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, the watershed moment that inspired and galvanized a movement to reform the appalling conditions and practices in such factories. If pressuring corporations and governments isn't your style, at least consider a donation to a group like Action Aid or Doctors Without Borders, or you can even "tax your shirt" at Just Giving. Every little bit helps.