“Buy Yourself a Cup of Tea” — A Collapse in Culture

Photo courtesy of the Associated Press.

A letter from a friend in Bangladesh

There are many more bodies to be recovered.

Greed is such a horrible sin. Money is so much more treasured than people. Workers have no rights. If you walk out or are fired, there are 100 people desperate to take the job.

All the political unrest and disruptions were making the garment people behind the filling their orders. So they drive the workers.

The building was built on a swamp. There was a six-story foundation and the owner was putting on a 9th floor when the building fell. It was also shoddy construction. If there is a good earthquake hundreds will come down.

Please pray for us. Thank you for your concern.

A Collapse in Culture

My heart sank last week when I began receiving emails from friends asking, “Did you hear about what happened in Bangladesh? Do you know the area where the building collapsed?”

I traveled to Bangladesh three times between 2008 and 2010, producing a documentary called Strong Bodies Fight while writing a paper analyzing the development “returns” on the education investment. During my month in the capital city of Dhaka, I spent a considerable amount of time interviewing people, particularly young female workers and also social workers, about the garment industry. I did not visit the Rana Plaza, which was situated on top of a swamp on the outskirts of the city, and, thankfully, no one I knew was injured. Nevertheless, the images of that dreadful collapse, which has so far claimed 377 lives and hospitalized thousands more, strike close to home.

The word, “culture,” especially with regard to developing countries, most often denotes something categorically positive. We think of music and dancing, flowery headdresses and indigenous displays. Bangladesh, particularly in its rural, tribal areas, is profoundly rich with such cultural expressions. There is also a culture of hospitality and earnest friendliness everywhere you go. I have never felt so welcome in a place as I have in Bangladesh.

Unfortunately, cultures, however beautiful, are ultimately as flawed and susceptible to corruption as the individuals who comprise them. Bangladesh is no exception. The culture of greed and petty corruption, rampant among the political and corporate elites, is crippling the country. 

But aren’t the Bangladeshi’s the victims here? Aren’t Western companies the real culprits, coercing Bangladeshi factories to churn out product for impossibly low prices in spite of inhumane standards? Sometimes, in some ways, yes. This is a) not always the case, b) only part of the puzzle and c), thanks to some good investigative journalism and awareness campaigns, a trend that is changing rapidly as companies respond to the increasingly boisterous demands of conscientious consumers. This is the beauty of our dollar democracy: consumers vote for what they value with their dollars; companies give the consumer what they want or they perish because competition ensures an endless supply of alternatives for the consumer. In our system, the consumer wields most of the power; with this power comes the responsibility of aligning one’s market interactions with one’s values.

But the persistent pandemic of garment-factory related tragedies in Bangladesh runs deeper than Western values and the demand for low prices at JC Penney, which is one of the name brand purchasers of fabrics produced at the Rana Plaza building. An invisible pathogen plagues Bangladeshi society and, from everything I have read in the past several days, its role in this tragedy has been widely overlooked.

“Buy yourself a cup of tea.”

Phonetically in Bangla, “Cha khabar taka,” this phrase is the cultural cue accompanied with the payment of a bribe. Bribery is nothing new and it happens everywhere under the sun, but in modern high-income nations, it is relatively rare practice and carries disincentives of criminal punishment and social stigma. Unfortunately, in Bangladesh, which scored a 26 out of 100 on Transparency International’s 2012 Corruption Perceptions Index, bribery is commonplace, goes unprosecuted, is practically socially acceptable simply because it is virtually unavoidable.

Source: http://cpi.transparency.org/cpi2012/results/

Need a driver’s license? Get pulled over for a traffic violation? Want to build a house? “Buy yourself a cup of tea” is a phrase you’ll be repeating for all of these tasks and more. It is a problem permeating every level of public and private life.

For most Bangladeshis, paying people off is just one of those necessary evils in life. This isn’t to say most Bangladeshis are unscrupulous; most are, but most people would simply rather pay a tiny bribe than sit in a government office for nine hours waiting for their paperwork to be carried from the front desk to the back office. To drop a few extra Taka down as an informal “incentive” seems an insignificant action in the scheme of things, even more so, say, than buying a “Made in Bangladesh” t-shirt from JC Penney. But culture is naught but the sum of many small acts, our everyday interactions weaving together the very fabric of our society. Every little thing we do is “paying it forward,” so we need be ever cognizant of what that little “it” we are paying forward is because before long, “it” might grow into something quite big.

The Costs of Corruption

In 2010, I spoke with a businessman who purchased a modest property to house his electronics shop. An honest gentleman trying to run an honest business, he had been pressured to pay people off every step of the way – from securing the property title to obtaining his license to do business, from passing building inspections to processing the bank paperwork, there was always someone waiting for a sweetener in return, on top of the actual service fees. Then there was the protection bribe. Build something new in the city and you’ll be paid a visit by a few, remarkably cordial representatives of a local gang-like association, often led by wealthy youth (not by the poverty-stricken as one might infer) and often carrying the local law enforcement in its pocket. The first visit is always amicable: pay a small “insurance premium” and feel more at peace knowing yor property development will go unhindered – a fair fee for a valuable service (racketeers often view themselves as legitimate businessmen after all). Turn down the offer, and the second visit won’t be nearly as friendly. Sometimes you must pay off multiple groups. Faced with the choice of keeping things moving by paying the necessary bribes, amounting to an estimated $12-13, versus watching his business stall and his family starve, our honest businessman was (and still is) coerced by circumstance to partake in dishonest transactions.

I asked this businessman how prevalent this type of experience is in Bangladesh. Was this a problem in particular neighborhoods, for instance? “Anywhere you go,” he said. “If you build it, they will surely come.” That negative twist on what is meant to be a positive, hopeful idiom illustrates the deeper issue of corruption undermining Bangladeshi development. Bribery doesn’t merely drive up the cost of business and everyday life; it corrodes culture and sometimes, as we witnessed last week, it even kills people.

Limits of Consumer, Corporate Responsibility

Failures need occur at numerous levels for something as egregious as the collapse of an entire plaza, but if I had to name my lead suspect, I’d point my finger square at petty bribery. The building was clearly unsafe and not up to code, but I’d bet my left foot they had all the proper paperwork with authentic signatures saying that it was. Having spent over a month in Dhaka casually observing the construction of buildings (mind you, I’m not an engineer), I would be shocked if there are many buildings at all that meet all the necessary building codes. But while some buildings and construction sites scream, “something is wrong here,” many others do not. Unless you are a trained civil engineer with under-the-hood-access, it’s virtually impossible to tell the difference.

The tragedy of Rana Plaza has initiated increased scrutiny of Western companies who have purchased products from any of the five garment factories operating there. Critical examination is always a good thing for everyone involved, including the companies themselves. Too often we adopt a “good guys vs. bad guys” narrative that assigns responsibility to the evils of capitalism. It’s good that we take responsibility for wrongs we commit, but if we always take all the responsibility, then other guilty parties are never held accountable, and there are certainly other guilty parties.

When Walmart and Nike came under fire in the 1990’s for turning a blind eye to the sweat-shop-like conditions housing the subcontracted workers producing their products, they were forced to change. They improved their standards considerably and spent millions on oversight and accountability, not to mention marketing, which, while self-serving, added to the public discourse and encouraged other companies to follow suit. Is there more work to be done to improve working conditions in developing countries? Always. But these things take time, major progress has been made and, to this day, particularly since the rise of information technology and social media, consumers are increasingly influential when it comes to corporate standard-setting.

As an aside, it’s important to realize here that these are not scenarios in which the people win and the corporations lose. Most people at these companies, including the executives, had little to no knowledge of the precise operations of the contractors, sub-contractors, and sub-sub-contractors. They have their own operations and workers to care for. This doesn’t make the company less responsible, but it’s important not to be too bloodthirsty in condemning them outright. Thanks to the waves of media stories illuminating the many grievous human rights violations associated with so many well-known brands, much has changed. Shareholders may have taken a temporary hit during the breaking news periods of such scandals, but in the long run the wake-up-calls were good and vital for the guilty companies themselves, both for their executives and for their employees. You never lose by advancing the good and, in the long run, you never win by assaulting human dignity. The reality of global business, however, is that there are ultimately limits on what socially responsible consumers and companies can actually accomplish; the responsibility of the contractors must not be forgotten.

If you’re JC Penney and you’re sincerely committed to operating your business with integrity, you’re going to invest in oversight and accountability, especially with regard to the developing world contractors you source your product from. You send inspectors traveling from country to country, from factory to factory, ideally giving little notice to the factory managers in order to ensure accuracy. Your inspectors are going to speak with owners, managers, and workers; they’re going to inquire about wages, hours, breaks, bathrooms, and general working conditions. They’re going to ask for paperwork proving the contractor’s legal status and they may even request an audit. Such paperwork might, though not necessarily, include that concerning the integrity of the building itself, and here is where things become extremely tricky. First of all, as in the case of the Rana Plaza, the company you are purchasing product from is likely not the owner of the building itself; the space is leased. This forces your oversight team to dig another level still deeper if you choose to be that meticulous (something not all purchasing companies can really afford to do). Then, operating in a country so wrought with corruption as Bangladesh, there is no way of determining the legitimacy of hardly any piece of paperwork. Unless you’re sending teams of civil engineers around to every single building of every single business you source every single part of every single product from, how on Earth do you ensure structural integrity? Simply put, you can’t. Neither can the consumer.

Corruption disguises what is true and what is untrue, what is safe and what is unsafe, what is legitimate and what is illegitimate. It disallows the ideal of a free market because the economic actors are not truly free, for they are subjects to a thousand cronies. This is why, while the push for increased corporate standards is indeed of utmost importance, a deeper conversation about corruption needs to take hold. Government regulations in the many forms of building codes are already well established; they’re just not being honored. Western companies are increasingly careful, if not by their own volition then by the powerful push from consumers, but they’re inevitably limited in their powers of supervision. For an end to the factory fires and structural disasters that kill innocent Bangladeshi workers every year, the culture of petty corruption needs to be overthrown. Such a revolt will necessarily have to come from within, but if we consumers must find creative ways to support this process. If we truly care about the plight of the poor, we need to do more than boycott brands and demonize the garment industry.

Kill the weeds, not the flowers.

The temptation is to boycott companies sourcing fabrics from Bangladesh. Companies who circumvent justice and show no regard for human dignity should be held accountable by consumers. But not all companies operating in Bangladesh are so unscrupulous, and as we rage against the weeds, we must keep a level head so as to spare the flowers.

There are a great many goods that come from Bangladesh’s garment industry, rapid reductions in abject poverty being the leading one. During my 2010 stay in Dhaka, a young Bengali woman named Theresa told me the jobs in the fashion industry represent the greatest hope Bangladesh, especially for young women. Economic opportunity and independence, she explained, was not only a path toward financial security, but also, in a male-dominated society, a path toward social equality. Indeed, what a sight it is to see the morning streets of Dhaka filled with young women sporting colorful dresses and veils on their way to work with springs in their steps. When I see a “Made in Bangladesh” tag on a shirt, I find myself torn, on the one hand thinking fondly of Theresa and young women like her, on the other hand aware of all the elicit activity festering below the surface.

There are no easy answers to this predicament.

However imperfect the standards still are, if we compare today’s market with that of the 1980’s, it’s safe to say that consumers demand more from companies and companies demand more from their contractors. Now it’s time we demand more from the culture itself. Merely boycotting everything “Made in Bangladesh” doesn’t help Bangladesh. The Bangladeshi people are relying on their comparative advantage to continue their rise out of poverty. But to prevent this rise from continual capture by cronies, we need to find ways to support Bangladeshis committed to weeding out corruption and redeeming the culture. We need to encourage indigenous leaders to prioritize the issue of bribery and campaign against it. We need to partner with those in the public and private sectors who are striving to provide hard-working Bangladeshis with honest alternatives.

When building and approving the Rana Plaza, the words, “Go buy yourself a cup of tea,” were most certainly uttered more than once. Now 377 people are dead.

It’s the side of the story we won’t catch on the six o’clock news. It’s the side of the story we can’t ignore.

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Apr 302013
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