A documentary film concerning garments production teaches the wrong lessons

by Hans Dembowski

To Bangladeshis poverty looks different than to Europeans

I watched a documentary with my 14 year old son lately. It is called “The true cost” and deals with the “fast fashion” industry’s global supply chains. Unfortunately, it teaches the wrong lessons.

Its emphasis is on the plight of workers in countries like Bangladesh. Moreover, the documentary points out that western consumer societies’ consumption patterns are wasteful and ultimately meaningless. Buying lots of T-shirts does not lead to true happiness.

The DVD I have is the short version of 40 minutes, which was produced for use in schools in Austria and Switzerland. My son found it interesting, so it apparently reaches its target group. Nonetheless, I am not comfortable with the idea of it shaping masses of youngsters’ understanding of globalisation because it paints a distorted picture. The distortions are subtle, but they matter.

First of all, the film suggests that garments factories make their workers poor. This claim is wrong. The truth is that the companies keep them poor. The people concerned are desperately poor to begin with. They typically have little education and lack any kind of opportunities. Indeed, to many, working in the garment industry is an opportunity because it makes them slightly better off than they would otherwise be. Masses of young rural women would like to find a job in textiles production, and one of them will happily step in for any worker who quits. This is why the bargaining power of the workers is so small.

I absolutely agree with Andrew Morgan, the documentary’s director, that the exploitation of workers is unacceptable. Unlike him, however, I think it needs to be seen in the context of the overarching poverty that affects Bangladesh.

A second distortion is that Morgan makes his audience believe that disasters like the collapse of the Rana Plaza building, in which many workers were killed, happen all the time. This is not so, but even though the big accidents are rare, they indeed happen far too often. The point is that they should not happen at all because they are easy to avoid. All it would take is to adhere to international safety standards. That said, collapsing buildings and devastating fires are not what mark workers’ daily lives.

Seen in context, garment production is not very dangerous. If staff members did not have a job in a factory, many of them would probably have to eke out a living in marginal agriculture, which is probably more accident prone than garment-factory life. Poisonous snakes are common in Bangladesh’s rural areas, but not on the factory floors. No one twists her ancle or breaks her leg trying to catch a run-away cow in a garment production facility.

To most Bangladeshis, these things are obvious. To most Europeans and North Americans, they are not. A good educational movie should make people aware of this difference.

In the rich world, people tend to believe that the workers in the garment factories are the poorest of the poor. Things are actually much worse. By Bangladeshi standards, garment workers constitute the lower middle class. Many of them support poorer relatives in the villages. Focusing only on one sector of a country’s economy does not result in a clear picture of just how huge development challenges really are. To some African observers, Bangladesh is not a living hell, but rather a model that should be copied.

Perspectives differ depending on where one is from and what kind of standards one is used to. In the contextg of global development, one needs to pay attention to the grass roots reality of developing countries. I haven’t seen the full documentary, which is more than twice as long, and perhaps it does a better job of conveying nuances. The short version, however, does not teach high-school kids the right lessons.

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