Monday, May 6, 2013

Bangladesh and the Private Sector

"I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one."
                --John 17.15

It’s been a week now since that eight story building collapsed in Bangladesh. As of today we know that over 600 were crushed under the rubble of that disaster. This does not count the countless number—like our own Boston—who will be wounded or crippled for the rest of their lives. We’re told that even though the building and been inspected just days before and declared unsafe—nothing was done to close the doors and send the hundreds of workers home.

The ugly facts are beginning to emerge. The New York Times has reported that there are 4,000 garment factories in that country. There are 3.8 million garment workers and more than $18 billion dollars in apparel exports from Bangladesh just this past year. We also learned that just six months before a fire in one of their factories killed 112 people. Safety conditions were ignored as they are in too many of these plants.

Most of us wear clothing that were made in sweatshops like these in country after country. I went back to my closet and riffled through shirts and sweaters and even suits. Almost nothing I touched was made in this country. The average worker in this crumbled factory was paying its workers $40.00 a month. Defenders of these manufacturing concerns say that without that pittance of a salary most of those who worked would go hungry. Better hungry than dead.

We keep hearing this litany at home about the wonders of the private sector. Just turn them loose, free us from all these cursed regulations and our economy would flourish. Have we forgotten the struggles of workers in our own country to achieve some kind of decent working conditions, some kind of minimum wage that would be more than a pittance?

I know the whole issue is complicated and I am far from being an economist. But I do know if we drowned the government in that bathtub that Grover Norquist keeps talking about we would be in bad trouble. Who says that big business will look after the common good? We know that many of our regulations and codes are ridiculous. But if we are honest we also know that without some restrictions what happened in faraway Bangladesh could come back to this country. Have we already forgotten our housing crisis which is still with us?

I do not know the answer to the aching pain in Bangladesh and the other thousands of sweatshops that keep our goods at reasonable prices. I do know that we could turn away from all those that will not follow safety rules that protect workers. Businesses like the Gap and Disney and Walmart and almost every other company buys their goods from these places where regulation is almost nonexistent. Maybe these 600 dead will be a wake-up call.

So when you see some politician talk about the private sector—remember Bangladesh and all our brothers and sisters there are as important as the children we send off to school every morning. Greed may kill us yet.  Who knows? But maybe, just maybe we will open our eyes and hearts long enough to change some of our selfish ways.

I remembered that moving stature of Jesus in the Garden in Gethsemani Monastery in Kentucky as I read these stories that have come to us from Bangladesh. That sculptured piece honors an American martyr, Jonathan Daniels of Boston who was shot down in Alabama in the sixties because of civil rights. Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world have mercy on us all. 


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