The Bare Truth

1,217 people dead. More than 2,500 injured.

These are the official figures from the recent building collapse in Bangladesh. It is being called as the worst industrial accident since the gas leak in Bhopal.

Naturally, the argument is accompanied by a lot of petitions and protests and demands for ‘improved conditions for workers’. But most people I know cluck their tongue at the disaster and just move onto to other news articles. Why? Because the world we live in – and by we, I mean the so-called third world mass population – these things have become routine.

In a recent conversation with a friend where were discussing alternative sources of energy, the upcoming nuclear plant in Kundankulam was mentioned. The friend argued that we would never move to alternative sources of energy in the next few decades, even if there was an accident at the plant, “which will happen because these guys will mess up with the material used,” he said. The friend in question is into construction and he knows how much golmaal happens in the industry.

It is expected in our country that before something needs to stand right, there will be mishaps. There were accidents with the Delhi Metro, the structures for the Commonwealth Games, buildings in all the cities. Hell, people often joke about the Bangalore Metro currently being constructed having some disasters. 

The truth is people often notice only when the numbers are huge. They call for reform, and I wonder do they realise what this industry has been built on?

Cheap Labor.

Those are the two words that are driving our economies. Garment factories are built in Bangladesh because the worker gets paid less than a dollar an hour, sometimes even a day. The top brands are aware of this huge disparity in pay and they do not particularly care because their profit margins remain thicker with such outsourcing. The countries in which these clothes are being manufactured perhaps have a minimum wage law, which is rarely enforced. Nobody particularly cares about the conditions in which they work.

Ask a factory supervisor a simple question – Where is the bathroom for these people? – and he would perhaps point out at a distant clump of bushes. 

Ask him how old the kid in the corner is and he’ll probably shrug and say “Old enough to work”.

Even if a miracle does occur and the governments involved implement and execute laws related to child labor, minimum wage, working conditions, there wouldn’t be many takers. A child of 8 is required to work to feed a family of 8. The supervisor does not care about how safe the conditions are because a) he wants his money b) he wants his targets met c) he gets into trouble if he starts making too many demands.

These sweatshops are now being called ‘Blood Garments’. Would that actually stop people from buying these branded and cheap clothes? 

“Blood Diamonds” was a term used not too long ago. They implemented the Kimberly Process and apparently that reduced much of the flow of blood diamonds. Every diamond is now certified. But a talk with any diamond merchant in Gujarat, India, will tell you how many blood diamonds get washed just in this one state. When a luxury item like diamonds could not really awaken the conscience of people, what hope does an everyday object have?

A recent article on EPW gave us the probable answer to this question – “The only way forward is for the country of manufacture to ensure basic humane working standards for their citizens and for trade unions, citizens and consumer organisations globally to keep the pressure on international retailers to follow these standards.”

I know that this will never happen in India. Not in my lifetime. I get laughed at every time I ask how old the kid cleaning the table at the restaurant is. The truth is the stomach rules everything else. And without any other source of income, children are forced to work, along with their parents, where they find a job.

For the governments to implement stricter laws, they need to first implement other facilities such as social security etc and ensure that the right people are benefiting. And when you are talking an accounted population of more than a billion, and add another few millions of unaccounted population – not as easy as it is to write about it.

And that’s why change is an extremely slow process… and that’s why we remain cynical about change.

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