A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy Hammer, June 2, 2013
Job 24:5-12 GNT
You, no doubt, have heard about the collapse of an eight-story building in Bangladesh on April 24 that housed a garment factory. The last figure I saw was 1,127 garment workers were killed in that disaster, one of the worst such disasters in history. I have read several articles about it, including suggestions from some about how we as American consumers should respond. This disaster got me to thinking. It presents us with a dilemma or conundrum, a problem admitting no satisfactory solution. For, you see, it is likely that some of us have clothes in our closets that came from Bangladesh, perhaps even from the clothing factory that collapsed. It is a sobering thought to ponder, should that be the case. Last November, 112 people died in a garment factory fire. The reality is several major U.S. companies buy clothes from Bangladesh, including Gap, J.C. Penny, Sears, Target, and Walmart. Bangladesh is now the second-largest exporter of clothes in the world, second only to China, exporting $20 billion in clothes annually to U.S. and European retailers. Clothing and textiles account for 80% of Bangladesh’s exports. Yet, the minimum wage for garment workers in Bangladesh is $38—per month! It is of the lowest minimum wages in the world.
Here is the dilemma: If we buy clothes that were made in Bangladesh, then (1) are we party to those 1,127 deaths? And (2) are we guilty of oppressing the poor because of the low wages they earn to produce the clothes that we wear? That is the conundrum. Hence, the thinking I have been doing the past several weeks. As we shall see, there are no easy answers. It is a tangled conundrum of yarn for which no end or resolution is readily visible. As was stated in USA Today, “Cheap clothes carry a high price.” “There is a story behind each piece of clothing you buy: some good and some horrible.”1
This conundrum drove me to the Bible, of course. And I ended up in the book of Job. The character Job found himself wrestling with similar types of dilemmas and conundrums. Job agonized over the poor who harvested fields for others, but had nothing to eat themselves. He saw those who trampled grapes for wine, but had nothing to drink. He saw those who were destitute and homeless, yet taken advantage of by the wealthy. He saw children who were turned into slaves to benefit the well off.
A similar thing is happening in Bangladesh today. The poor of Bangladesh work long hours in factories, sometimes seven days a week, but can’t afford to buy the products they produce. Many are on the verge of homelessness. Children often go to work at a young age to help support the family and pay the family’s debts. There is a movement now to get the minimum wage raised, but factory owners are opposing the increase, contending they can’t afford to pay significantly more to workers because Western consumers have gotten used to buying cheap clothing and won’t pay more. Complicating matters in the Bangladesh garment factory disaster is the fact that the building was known beforehand to be structurally unsafe, with structural cracks clearly visible. It was a disaster just waiting to happen. The owner of the factory was captured trying to flee across the Indian border and is now under arrest.
Okay, with all of this in mind, what should be our response? Some have said that major companies, like those I mentioned earlier, should boycott and stop buying clothes from companies in Bangladesh. Or on a more personal level, others have said that we as consumers should carefully check clothing tags and refuse to buy clothes that were made in Bangladesh. Both of these responses may seem to be logical to some. But we need to be careful to not act too hastily. And here is why.
Actually, for U.S. apparel companies to stop doing business with Bangladesh factories would be counterproductive to improving the lives of the people there. The people of Bangladesh desperately need the garment factory jobs, even if they are only making $38 per month. Only recently have such job opportunities been opened up to women in Bangladesh who previously had little opportunity to improve their lives and the lives of their families. Many women see the opportunity to work in a garment factory as a salvation of sorts. Previously they faced starvation in their villages. Jobs other than the garment industry, such as in chemical factories or ship-breaking yards, are even more hazardous than working in garment factories, even with the known dangers. One Bangladesh woman of 25 stated she would be “helpless” apart from a job in a garment factory. “If you want to survive,” she said, “you have to work.”
So, what are some of the ramifications of the “What are we going to wear?” conundrum? Do we stop buying clothes made in Bangladesh because of the unfair wages and unsafe working conditions? Or do we continue to buy clothes from Bangladesh because the people there desperately need the meager wages they earn?
Can we continue to exist and consume, thinking what we do doesn’t affect people on the other side of the world? Or do we begin to see ourselves intertwined with those in every part of the world who produce the goods we consume?
Do we see ourselves as solitary creatures with no connection, no ties, or no obligations to others? Or do we bear responsibility for others of the world—are we our brothers’ and sisters’ keeper—no matter how far away they might be?
When I started this sermon, I really had no idea where I was going with it. It was just a subject that had been weighing on my mind and I felt it needed to be addressed. As I said early on, there is no immediate answer or solution to the conundrum of buying goods made by those who work for near nothing or work in dangerous, deplorable working conditions. But if there is anything to come out of considering this issue, maybe it is simply that we all need to be more conscious of our actions and cognizant of the fact that what we do in this part of the world affects people on the other side of the world. It is like that saying that if a butterfly flaps its wings on one side of the world it has an effect on the other side of the world. We are interconnected with so many other people of the world, whether we realize it or want to acknowledge it or not.
In addition to those who make our clothes in developing countries sweatshops, there are those who harvest coffee beans for the coffee we drink, migrant workers who grow and harvest the fruits and vegetables we eat, fishermen who risk their lives for the fish we eat, single mothers who serve the food we eat at restaurants, and the list goes on. And often these people do what they do for our benefit with little pay and no benefits and in deplorable working conditions. Our web of connections goes out into so many places in the world that we could never dream of. As Calum MacLeod quoted one Bangladesh worker in another USA Today article, “It’s a global business. Everybody has the responsibility. Workers . . . are unsafe, hungry, with bad living and working conditions. We are human. We want respect and dignity. . .”2
As I have stated, there are no easy answers. But such knowledge should awaken us to our connection with and dependence upon others in the world. This is a first step in the right direction. It should make us more sensitive to the plight of others with whom we are connected. And it should stir gratitude within us for others and the ways that what they do benefit our lives. So, you see, the “What are we going to wear question?” is not as simply as we might have thought. Amen.
1USA Today, May 21, 2013. 2USA Today, May 17, 2013. Information also drawn from The Wall Street Journal, May 13, 2013.