Many People Die in Boat Collision...Again

A few years ago, when I used to do anti-sweatshop work focusing  at an American-union funded organisation, a sociologist confronted me about how we came up with our demands.  She asked something like why we focused on disclosing the locations of factories or a living wage in Bangladesh, rather than river boat safety, drawing attention to the failure to pay attention to the local. 

This comment has remained with me, and reemerges particularly any time I either here about fair trade or, more cuttingly, about the boat collisions that happen continuously.  Every year there are numerous accidents, and many Bangladeshi women who work in garment factories travel from their homes to the city/export pr by river boat on holiday or for other reasons are killed in the process, alongside who knows who else who uses these boats. 

The latest one I came across today is on CNN's website, reporting 39 people who died.  The police superintendent reportedly said:

"There is not much scope to do anything else," he said Sunday. "Now we're adjusting the death toll as the bodies are rising to the surface from the deep waters."

While I think the motivations are okay of some who support international solidarity measures like labor and environmental standards imposed from abroad without local grassroots work that demands it, there is a blindness that is illustrated by the disjoint between the demands and the realities that the sociologist I spoke with raised.  To ignore the local in determining what is an issue, how it should be addressed, and why it needs addressing is a symptom of the fact that imperialism is not just a state-to-state activity, but a society-to-society to one as well.  And just as there are governments more powerful than others, the amount of power that an American union or an American progressive writer like David Sirota will have is far greater than a Bangladeshi worker organisation or a Bangladeshi progressive writer.  This disparity needs to be focused upon and addressed by the former in order to be engaging in social justice work, rather than primarily self-interested work (even it is a "noble" self-interest in some cases).

Otherwise, you may as well chuck the whole concept of human rights out the window - because it is differences in power that makes these rights violations possible to begin with.  Whether or not that is remediable - some I know have suggested it is not - for as long as people continue to engage in "anti-sweatshop" work or "solidarity" work of any kind, they need to attempt to get as much connection with the grassroots as possible, and they need to be aware of exactly how convoluted the political process is that leads to an American activist in New York or Los Angeles sympathising on an issue with the day-to-day needs and rights and demands of a Bangladeshi or Burmese or Colombian worker.

It's not "think globally, act locally" anymore - it's "think-and-engage globally, act-in-support locally" that's the best way to go about things, I think.

Summary: 
What river boat accidents in Bangladesh tell us about international solidarity work in the Global North

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Comments

my curiosity is piqued now,

my curiosity is piqued now, did you used to work with the WRC?

have you heard about the solidarity work students are doing now with the union SITRAJEERZESH in honduras? the factory was shut down in retribution for workings forming the union and trying to negotiate, and the organization i work for (though i do not coordinate this particular campaign) just got 21 universities to cut their contracts with Russell over it. the underlying campaign is trying to get companies to stay in unionized factories, because without the policy measures i think folks were at a loss for strategizing over how to stand in solidarity with democratic worker organizations...

www.reininrussell.org

i definitely appreciate this entry though, it's something i particularly have frustrations with (and i think a lot of people within my org too). i do believe our group has had much more of these types of conversations than other groups i've had experience with, which is ultimately why i've stuck with it.

 

I didn't work with WRC,  but

I didn't work with WRC,  but I was involved in the anti-sweatshop movement when it was being set up and when FLA was being fought, in the late 1990s.

I've heard about the Russell campaign - I don't know enough about it to comment on it really, but I do think that the idea of power disparities between rich world and poor world institutions (governments, etc.) is pretty crucial to an anti-corporate analysis.  Also, I saw some really horrid stuff comparing the "good" activism on Russell to the "bad" NYU activists.  As if democratic universities are not worth fighting for and ubercleverness and conservative demands are the same thing :)

I think your point about having a concerete policy objective on point but based on my experience, what I'm concerned with is where that objective is coming from, which I think you relate to.  I knew people in USAS or other activism who moved abroad and lived in Thailand or Bangladesh or Indonesia, and I think that kind of step is useful.  It's really the "how does it become the policy objective" that I'm concerned with rather than the "whether" you should have one or not.  But they're part of the same process - just channeling your energy in different directions.

 

unfortunately our own

unfortunately our own activists get pitted against each other in those ways often (even our own USAS groups). a good number of our student activists overlap, so it's somewhat silly for others to make analyses like that, and it's uncomfortable to be placed in the "good activist" category when we're often used as the opposite example (our group did a 16-day sit-in on domestic and international labor issues and got arrested at the end, so i'm no stranger to that). if this particular campaign had taken more escalation on these campuses that cut, i'm sure the story would have been looking different. the media coverage in general was framing the issue infuriatingly-- as if universities did this out of the goodness of their hearts rather than 10 years of student and worker activism, so that definitely played into it as well, because universities could feel good about this campaign and use it to make them look good.

right, i'm concerned about that as well. i still do a lot of that international solidarity work because of the connections we've (and i've) made and the requests we get from folks, but my focus has been on domestic student-labor solidarity.  lots of our folks have the opportunity to travel internationally through our work (including me) but many don't, and so there's not often the concrete connections (though we have times, like in this campaign, where we're able to get funding for union leaders to come to college campuses in the US).

but in general, my folks have more access and ability to make relationships and have deeper understanding of what's going on on the ground. so i prefer inserting an internationalist view into the community-building and the analysis that goes on here as my route to international solidarity...

Safety is poorly implemented

Safety is poorly implemented in most of the South East Asian countries. Europe, Japan and US think this is due to the lack of education and human values in our societies, whether it is in Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, Srilanka, basically the people and culture are same.

Such kind of accidents re-occur and our political leaders mourn. We are the ones who made this society and we are the ones to be blamed. Nobody else.

Let's get away from the

Let's get away from the question of "blame" for a second.   Why are riverboats frequently used in Bangladesh?  Why are there frequent accidents with many casualties as opposed to, say, in Venice today.  I think that is what the starting point of figuring the specifics of this issue out would be for me.

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