Rows of anonymous dead bodies lie side by side, each covered in colorful cloth to provide some dignity in the last earthly moments, a line of near grieving family members looking at face after face to determine whether to finally let loose the “sea of tears” welling within them. What other than a natural disaster could have caused such devastation? Man caused this wrenching of families apart. Indeed, humanity holds more direct complicity in this event than in the increase of CO2 and consequential variations in climate that lead to hurricanes and wildfires; the western culture of rampant consumerism left Mahmuda without a husband and Preity without a sister. The collapse of Rana Plaza, one of the countless textile factories in Bangladesh resulted in a Western neglect of cultural conscious, enabled by its investment in ideology of meritocracy, that the West earned the privilege of fair labor by its merit, paralleling the belief that their rich earned their social position on merit alone.

 

Meritocracy enables inequality at home, which extends to our treatment of those living in foreign nations. Richard Reves outlines the tendency of the rich to justify their wealth on the logic-defying assumption that opportunity benefits everyone equally, so they earned their wealth, the concept of meritocracy, in “Stop Pretending You’re Not Rich”, an op-ed written for The New York Times in June 2017 (Reeves).  This idea of meritocracy, first appearing in 1950’s England by Michael Young, appeared preposterous. Young satirized the social phenomenon saying, “intelligence has been redistributed between the classes, and the nature of classes has changed”(“The Rise of the Meritocracy – Michael Dunlop Young – Google Books,” n.d.). The idea that intelligence inherently accompanies class, however absurd infiltrates American conscious today(Reeves). The rich then take steps to exclude themselves with others who “earned” their wealth as “upper middle class to live in enclaves, gated communities, in effect, even if the gates are not visible”, enforcing the idea that wealth is earned by only allowing themselves to see and humanize the stories of success that mirror their own (Reeves). If the rich of America convince themselves of meritocracy by isolation, imagine how easily the application of meritocracy follows in the subjugation of other nations in supplying our cheap labor. The difference between stitching “120 trousers an hours, 10 hours a day” and the job of a middle class American doesn’t matter or seems like a nuance to Americans who, “attribute their position to their brilliance and diligence, rather than to luck or a rigged system” (Reeves). Thus the belief middle class westerners deserve their wealth, extends to all of western society abandoning conscious in favor of holding onto what they believe the have earned.

 

Americans wield great purchasing power, as the article from the Guardian about the Rana Plaza disaster, “The Shirt on Your Back: the Human Cost of the Bangladeshi Garment Industry,” outlines, beginning with a pivotal truth “This story is about money” (Poulton). As Marylin Geewax for NPR states “American spends like no one else”, and this trend extends to other western nations with Britain at 85 percent of our consumption levels, Germany and France at 70 percent (Geewax) This power that the ability of monetary prosperity in the West enables them to outsource their conscious, in similar way to how America enables  inequality by ignoring the issue of class. When I refer to outsourcing conscious I’m referring to the side-effect of outsourcing labor that allows the humanitarian right conflicts implicit in cheap labor to be shipped off along with the raw materials and returned as a smoothed over finished product. Within this system we as the consumers in the western world don’t witness any of the daily struggle associated with the production of what ends up as fuel for a common “primary leisure activity” of young adults, the consumption of a shirt or dress, but ultimately toil for unfair wages and conditions that sometimes result in death, 1,130 people on on the 24th of April in the Rana Plaza. What’s more, brands know they have this tacit will of the people as “one senior executive at a big European high street brand [said] ‘but if a consumer buys a pair of jeans at $9.99 what are you really expecting the working conditions of those who made it or even just the environment where they live?” (Poulton). As the article states “People started to die but the garment industry continued unabated”, as those in Western economies buy for recreation without regard for the workers whose hands have bled for them.

 

Some may argue though that without our consumerism has bolstered the Bangladeshi economy proving they benefit from our economic relationship rather than sustain injury or suffer inequality. The Bangladeshi economy is on the rise. “The Shirt on Your Back” notes, “Once Kissinger’s Basket Case now it is one of the ‘Next Eleven’ nations seen by Goldman Sachs as having the potential to ‘take off’ as a major economies” (Poulton). However, at what price? Does western society accept the cost of human lives as a necessary outcome of progress? That answer to that question rests on the individuals in the Western economies who hold the economic power driving the Bangladeshi textile industry. Such economies instigated the economic growth, “about 10 years ago [from 2014] when global restrictions of garment production, negotiated in the 1970’s were lifted” after which workers employed by the Bangladesh fashion industry doubled in the next nine years (Poulton). This trend led executives of fast fashion retailers to claim ”Bangladesh … needed them more then they probably needed Bangladesh” enforcing the idea of western consumers as beneficial for Bangladesh (Poulton). However “manufacturing jobs are NOT coming back to the U.S. textile and apparel industry” (Lu). So the issue revolves not around whether Bangladesh will keep jobs from the textile industry, but whether Western economies will look beyond the blinders of meritocracy to take accountability for the unfair working conditions of the Bangladeshi textile industry.

 

 

Opportunity exists for this upward rise in the regulation of fair working conditions if Westerners look beyond their idea of pre-existing meritocracy. Evidently Westerners hold no accountability for the conditions, evidenced by “The Rana Plaza disaster [dominating] global headlines for a week. Then the world’s news agenda moved on” with no real resulting change (Poulton). The lack of change begins with the fast fashion retailers. However, consumers in the west can change that. Using purchasing power to invest in clothing produced by conditions unfair for the worker invests in their continued inequality. Thus, implicitly the consumer denies their own part in a meritocracy. Perhaps this realization can shock consumers into changing their ways. Then, the Bangladeshi economy could develop a labor force with agency to advocate for better working standards and invest back into diversifying the economy for enduring economic growth. For examples, entrepreneurial individuals like Priety, who aspires to own her own tailoring business, could create more jobs rather than being trapped in the cycle of poverty due to unfair wages (Poulton). This access to upward mobility for workers could easily happen with legislation. If legislation kept labor in US, clearly it could regulate our participation in labor conditions from import. Westerns control the money, and it is their regulation of that money, namely the five percent late fee at end of month that incentivized and forced laborers into the unsafe Rana Plaza, on the 27th of June, that was the deciding factor in the ending of lives. Rather than hold onto systems that enable a ‘wealth trap’ and exclude developing nations and morality, all on the false basis that the west earned it, such countries should ensure their money follows ethical channels.

 

No longer should westerns outsource or abandon their conscious, but the blinders of meritocracy begin continentally and must change there before global injustice like the Rana Plaza disaster to cease.

Bibliography

Geewax, M. (2011, December 06). Why Americans Spend Too Much. Retrieved January 26, 2018, from https://www.npr.org/2011/12/05/143149947/why-americans-spend-too-much

Lu, A. S. (2017, March 14). State of the U.S. Textile and Apparel Industry: Output, Employment and Trade (Updated March 2017). Retrieved January 26, 2018, from https://shenglufashion.wordpress.com/2017/03/12/state-of-the-u-s-textile-and-apparel-industry-output-employment-and-trade-updated-march-2017/

Poulton, L., Panetta, F., Burke, J., & Levene, D. (2014, April 16). The shirt on your back: the human cost of the Bangladeshi garment industry. Retrieved January 26, 2018, from https://www.theguardian.com/world/ng-interactive/2014/apr/bangladesh-shirt-on-your-back

Reeves, R. V. (2017, June 10). Stop Pretending You’re Not Rich. Retrieved January 26, 2018, from https://www.nytimes.com/2017/06/10/opinion/sunday/stop-pretending-youre-not-rich.html?mcubz=0

The Rise of the Meritocracy – Michael Dunlop Young – Google Books. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://books.google.com/books?hl=en&lr=&id=QelNAQAAQBAJ&oi=fnd&pg=PR11&dq=meritocracy&ots=qCxrXgbanI&sig=DJvPFabeuVY3Sna30vkHdbMQKqY#v=onepage&q=meritocracy&f=false

 

February 5, 2018

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