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Questioning ethics: From Dhaka factory floors to Himalayan base camps

Commentary: Whether the victims of exploitation are garment workers, mountain guides, or domestic workers – of Bangladesh, Philippines or the Sherpa community – they should have the resources to push for change.
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Nepalese people hold candles in memory of the 16 Nepalese Sherpa guides killed in an avalanche on Mount Everest in Katmandu on April 30, 2014. An unprecedented shutdown of Mount Everest after the worst ever accident on the world's highest peak has left grieving Nepalese Sherpa guides and their families fearing for their livelihoods. The avalanche on April 18 that tore through a group of Sherpas — who were hauling gear up the mountain for their foreign clients before dawn — left 16 people dead and three others seriously wounded. (PRAKASH MATHEMA/AFP/Getty Images)

NEW YORK – Sitting here, catching up over ice coffees, over the Independence Day holidays in New York, the tales of life and death on mountain slopes and factory floors are a world away.

That’s unfortunate, but understandable as the latest sad headline has long replaced those about the deadliest accident in Mount Everest’s history less than three months ago, killing 16 Nepalese guides, or the news of a factory collapse in Bangladesh just over a year ago, killing more than a 1,000 garment workers.

For many Americans and indeed people of all nationalities caught up in our increasingly consumer-driven society, little thought is given to the people who make our goods or provide the services that will help ensure we get what we want, when we need it.

We have sought to begin to change that, keeping the attention on supply chains and the practices and tragedies that plague many of the products and services – from the latest summer outfits to the vacations of a lifetime – sourced often in Asia for America’s consumers.

This May 29 should have been a day of commemoration, as Nepal and in particular its Sherpa community marked the 100th anniversary of the birth of Tenzing Norgay Sherpa, the legendary mountaineer who along with Edmund Hillary of New Zealand became the first to summit Mount Everest in 1953, and by some measures became the first "Asian celebrity" who was not a head of state.

How sad and telling it is that few will remember the names of nearly 20 Sherpas killed this past climbing season, including the 16 killed in the April 18 avalanche. Indeed for most people, the only Sherpa whose name they might ever know is that of Tenzing Norgay Sherpa. What does this say about a world of consumers increasingly disconnected from the people who make their garments, grow their food or in the extreme, lead their way up the world’s highest peak.

The recent deaths on Everest have brought grief to loved ones. The pain of their loss will be compounded by economic hardship, highlighting the responsibility that rich-country consumers often must bear, both before and after such workplace catastrophes in developing countries. Survivors of the Sherpas killed on Everest this season include some 28 children, from 2-months to 20-years old.

Yet, the death toll in Everest’s worst-ever disaster is small compared, for example, to last year’s collapse of the Rana Plaza garment factory in Dhaka, Bangladesh, on April 24, which killed more than 1,100 people, many of them women. But the consequences for the victims’ families are similar, and the lessons are the same – a need for sweeping changes in attitudes and behavior among all involved.

While climbing the world’s highest mountain will always be dangerous, we must remember that on this occasion only Sherpas died, and in the years since Everest began attracting large inflows of Western climbers, Sherpas have accounted for most fatalities.

Such statistics sit uneasily with the idea of climbing as a symbol of comradeship and teamwork. When Tenzing Norgay Sherpa and Hillary became the first people to reach Everest’s peak in 1953, everyone shared the risks, challenges, and joys of the adventure. We did it together as a team was the mantra. The recent Sherpa deaths, however, suggest a breakdown of these values – and possibly of some basic human values, too.

The loss underscores a growing divide between expedition members, who pay top dollar to reach the summit, and their highly skilled Sherpa guides, who are paid a relative pittance and too often are taken for granted. Indeed, Nepal’s mountain communities remain desperately poor, despite hundreds of millions of dollars spent in development assistance by well-meaning organizations, from USAID to the Asian Development Bank.

But this can and must change. Sherpa climbers need to establish a sensible “code of operation” and stand behind it. At the same time, foreign expeditions and their leaders must see their role as more than “providing jobs” – a morally dubious outlook at best. The question is what kind of job Sherpa guides are expected to do.

Sherpas operate in the most treacherous conditions and are disproportionately exposed to danger. Their skill and judgment is usually the deciding factor in any expedition’s success, and the challenges they face are much more difficult when foreign climbers are sipping coffee at base camp rather than pulling their weight. Those days must end; all climbers have a responsibility to “earn their summit.”

Expedition sponsors, whose brands benefit from the Sherpas’ accomplishments, must also take some responsibility – and that means doing more than just writing a check. Like any socially responsible company, they must evaluate how their funds are distributed and consider the broader impact of their behavior on local communities.

Everest expeditions from the Nepal side were appropriately canceled as a sign of respect for those who died.

Those climbers who believed that continuing would “honor” the lost Sherpas should consider alternative ways to express their reverence.

First, all climbers should show respect in a more unambiguous way. They should be generous in easing the financial burden on families, especially those with young children, who may have lost their sole breadwinner.

Second, they could continue their support now that the media spotlight has moved elsewhere. For example, they might contribute to the American Himalayan Foundation, which has established a Sherpa Family Fund to support the families of Sherpas who are killed or injured. Or they might engage in some other way the conditions that lead to such disasters in the first place, and the treatment afforded to the victims.

This is a responsibility that goes far beyond the ethics of mountain climbing. Like the Everest disaster, the calamity at Rana Plaza raises fundamental issues about our global economy – namely, the way wealthy consumers ignore the fate of the impoverished workers who provide their cheap goods and services.

Rana Plaza focused international attention on the plight of Bangladesh’s four million garment workers, and their critical role in the global clothing industry. Subsequent investigations revealed low pay, abused employees, and dangerous working conditions in one of Bangladesh’s most important economic sectors.

Governments and the private sector must do more to improve factory safety and properly compensate the 2,500 survivors. The Rana Plaza Donors Trust Fund, established by labor groups and clothing companies to help victims, had a year after the factory collapse raised only about $15 million of its $40 million target. The Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility, supported by more than 130 institutional investors, is lobbying companies that benefit from low-cost supply chains in the garment industry to contribute more.

Unfortunately, if the Rana Plaza tragedy is any indication, interest in the Sherpas will also continue to fade unless campaigners, foundations, and companies keep up the pressure for change.

Media are now reporting that family members of the avalanche victims say that they have yet to receive promised compensation and insurance payments. The Nepal government initially had pledged $400 for families of the guides killed in the April avalanche, but later raised the amount to $5,000 after angry protests and public outcry.

Whether the victims of exploitation are garment workers in Bangladesh, mountain guides from the Sherpa community, domestic workers from the Philippines and Indonesia, or employed in myriad other corners of the global economy, they typically lack the resources to press successfully for meaningful change on their own. The point is that they should not have to.

Curtis S. Chin, a former United States ambassador to the Asian Development Bank, is a managing director of the advisory firm RiverPeak Group, LLC. Dhamey Tenzing Norgay, the son of Tenzing Norgay Sherpa, is co-owner of Noble Traveller, a Bhutan-based travel company. Chin can be followed on Twitter at @CurtisSChin.

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