Rescue workers look for trapped garment workers at the collapsed Rana Plaza building in Savar, Bangladesh. More than 700 workers died following the April 24 collapse of a building housing factories that made low-cost garments for Western brands. CNS photo/Andrew Biraj, Reuters

Sharing a moral responsibility

  • May 12, 2013

More than 700 bodies have been recovered from the Rana Plaza in Bangladesh. Loblaw Cos. Ltd. has stepped forward to offer compensation to families of dead workers at one of the factories that operated inside Rana Plaza where Loblaw’s Joe Fresh clothing line sourced its products.

But consumers whose closets are full of cheap clothes from Bangladesh are also morally responsible, theologians told The Catholic Register.

There’s no free pass to guilt-free deals when you go shopping, said Fr. Francis O’Connor of London, Ont.’s St. Peter’s Seminary.

“It’s a human act, so we are morally responsible,” O’Connor said.

The priest inspected his own closet and immediately found two pairs of pants from Bangladesh, as well as items from Honduras, Indonesia and China.

“What’s at stake here is to what extent you are co-operating with certain kinds of evils,” said Regis College moral theology professor John Berkman.

If we know or can make a reasonable guess that working conditions in Bangladeshi garment factories are unjust and even dangerous, then the purchase “would be a kind of formal co-operation with wrongdoing and that would be wrong,” Berkman said.

There are cases of invincible ignorance where the individual would not be personally or subjectively guilty, though the evil remains just as evil, said O’Connor. But in a globalized world we’ve got lots of ways of knowing what’s going on, he said.

Church teaching about the moral evil of unjust work conditions and the role of unions in protecting workers has been repeated by every pope for more than a century, O’Connor points out. Recent teaching points out the responsibility of consumers.

Pope John Paul II’s 1981 encyclical Laborem Exercens highlights the role of the “indirect employer.”

Governments, international trade partners and consumers can be responsible for unjust work conditions, said Pope John Paul.

“This is not to absolve the direct employer from his own responsibility, but only to draw attention to the whole network of influences that condition his conduct,” he wrote.

In Caritas in Veritate Pope Benedict XVI specifically mentions the social responsibility of consumers.

“It is good for people to realize that purchasing is always a moral — and not simply economic — act. Hence the consumer has a specific social responsibility, which goes hand-in-hand with the social responsibility of the enterprise,” wrote Benedict in 2009 (emphasis in the original).

On May Day, the Feast of St. Joseph the Worker, Pope Francis drew attention to the Rana Plaza catastrophe.

“This is what you call slave labour,” the Pope said. “Many social, political and economic systems have chosen to exploit the human person… not paying a just wage, not offering work, focusing solely on the balance sheets — the company’s balance sheets — only looking at how much I can profit. This goes against God.”

In the Rana case, the responsibility of retailers who use their muscle to demand lower prices and tighter deadlines is clear, said Maquila Solidarity Network executive director Bob Jeffcott.

“The primary responsibility has to be with the companies, including some of the buyers,” he said.

But the Church- and labour-sponsored network doesn’t think consumers are off the hook.

“We have a responsibility not to ignore or try to hide from ourselves the conditions under which workers are making these $5 t-shirts,” Jeffcott said. “We have at the very least a responsibility to ask the company, ‘What are you doing to ensure that this t-shirt is made under safe conditions’ and demand some real answers.”

Loblaw executive chairman Galen Weston has vowed to continue sourcing clothing from Bangladesh and expand its program of inspections and ethical requirements in contracts to include building safety.

“I’m troubled by the deafening silence from other apparel retailers on this,” Weston told reporters. “Thirty companies were having goods manufactured, but only two have come forward to speak publicly.”

Ultimately the hope for change in Bangladesh has to come from the Bangladeshi government which is responsible for labour law and building codes and enforcement, said Jeffcott.

“I don’t think that we as consumers can make fundamental change. But we can contribute to change,” he said.
It’s too easy to blame the economy or globalization, said O’Connor.

“It’s not just controlled by impersonal laws of nature,” he said. “But these are real, human decisions that are being made.”

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