Ethical consumption

  • May 9, 2013

Millions of people across the developing world are longing to work and will take almost any job, at any wage in just about any workplace. They’re that desperate.

The developed world has a moral responsibility to support these genuine efforts by the poor to raise themselves and their families from poverty through the dignity of honest work. The common good can be advanced when wealthy corporations outsource manufacturing to needy nations in Asia and Africa. But too frequently what the West brings these deprived regions is exploitation disguised as patronage.

This concern was awakened by the recent tragedy in Bangladesh in which more than 700 garment workers were killed when their workplace collapsed. They died after being ordered by unscrupulous bosses to keep working in a building that an engineer had declared unsound and police had ordered evacuated.

The dead, mostly women, were manufacturing t-shirts and other garments for large companies based primarily in Europe, the United States and Canada. The workers had virtually no workplace rights. They earned less than $10 a week.

Pope Francis equated their working conditions to slave labour. He said people deserve employment and dignity, and there is something wrong with a society that fails to provide both. “Power, money, culture do not give us dignity,” he said. “Work, honest work, gives us dignity.”

It is not inherently wrong for corporations to build profit by moving some operations abroad. Indeed, it is benevolent to create jobs in impoverished nations. But it becomes immoral when social justice and ethical practices are trampled in single-minded stampedes to gussy up balance sheets and rally stock prices.

All the world’s workers, regardless of where they live, are entitled to safe work environments, human rights and fair wages. All corporations have a moral duty to guarantee this workers’ trinity of rights to everyone they pay, directly or indirectly. It is unconscionable when Western companies dodge these obligations by blindly moving operations to places where oversight is lax, governments are blind and executives are corrupt.

This is not just a Bangladesh problem. Workers are exploited across Asia, Africa and Latin America. Nor is it a problem to be solved solely by governments and industry. Just as environmental awareness has infiltrated everyday consciousness, ethical consuming needs to become a mainstream ethos. Ultimately, consumers will drive reform by the choices they make.

Withdrawing from the developing world is not a moral option. If anything, the tragedy in Bangladesh underlines the obligation for wealthy nations to become more invested in the world’s poor to help them achieve the human rights, safe workplaces and decent living standards we take for granted.

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