On September 16, 2012, I posted “Burning up workers,” beginning:
When a society undergoes disasters, it can learn and change, or not. Our society isn’t so good a changing, at least not for the better, any more….
I really should have written “Our world….”
At the end of that post, I included the earlier post “The 1911 Triangle Fire / PBS / American workers,” ending:
You can bet that more disasters for the all-time high list are in the making.
“Wrenching events,” in the Times’ expression, happen around us all the time today, in fires, shootings, car accidents, environmental disasters, wars, and the steady erosion of our social fabric. Will those too have “a profound influence”? Or is our society totally adjusted to them as a cost of doing business?
There too I could have written “our world.” Enormous disasters are one of the many costs of globalization. If you feel a morbid need to see how bad disasters can get in various fields of human endeavor, check out “List of industrial disasters” in Wikipedia. Disasters have always existed, but they are bigger now, and poor countries are ever more desperate to export products to rich countries.
Those ready-to-burn and ready-to-collapse factories in Pakistan or Bangladesh or wherever else sell clothing to brand name distributors in the US and other economically developed countries.
The September 12. 2012, fire in Pakistan killed over 300 workers. Now, way topping that number, last week’s building collapse in Bandladesh killed over 400, with up to 1,000 still missing. The count could be nearing one full Titanic unit (1502 dead, 4/15/1912).
According to “As Bangladesh Toll Hits 400, Calls Grow to Grant Workers the Same Protections as Labels They Make” at Democracy Now!, 5/1/13:
…The collapse is now being described as the deadliest accident in the history of the garment industry and marked Bangladesh’s third industrial accident in five months. The building’s owner has been arrested, and a Bangladeshi court has frozen the assets of the owners of the five garment factories that were inside. Most of the workers reportedly earned an average annual salary of $38 a month — roughly 21 cents an hour — to make apparel for a number of Western companies….
What clothing brands were involved? According to Amy Goodman,
Western clothes companies linked to the Rana Plaza factory so far include The Children’s Place, Cato Corp., Joe Fresh, Papaya Denim, “Free Style Baby,” Benetton, the Irish company Primark’s Denim Co. and Cedarwood State, and others….
According to “Bangladeshis Burn Factories to Protest Unsafe Conditions” in the New York Times, 4/27/13:
Labor groups in the United States on Friday distributed photos showing that they had discovered garments with labels from J. C. Penney and El Corte Inglés, the Spanish retailer, at the site of the collapse.
A November, 2012, fire in Bangladesh killed 120+ workers in a factory whose customers included WalMart (see “Bangladeshi Labor Activist Finds Burned Clothes with Wal-Mart Labels at Site of Deadly Factory Fire,” Democracy Now!, 11/27/12.
And “Some Retailers Rethink Role in Bangladesh” in today’s New York Times reveals that as a result of the November fire, Disney “in March ordered an end to the production of branded merchandise in Bangladesh.”
A few companies may decide avoiding embarrassment trumps the desire for the cheapest labor, but unfortunately, it’s hard not to share the cynicism of Amy Goodman’s interviewee Charles Kernaghan of the Institute for Global Labour and Human Rights, who says:
…it would be amazing if our government had the guts to stand up and say, “The workers in Bangladesh have suffered enough. They deserve the internationally recognized worker rights to freedom of association, the right to organize a union and to bargain collectively.”
And it’s not just a question of workers’ rights abroad, but of US workers’ jobs as well. In the last twenty years–thanks again to globalization–millions of US manufacturing jobs have been outsourced to factories abroad, in large part because of exploitative working conditions and pay scales in developing countries. As Goodman mentions:
…the link between what’s happening in, for example, Bangladesh and what’s happening in the United States is rarely made. The issue of if workers can get—what is it? something like 21 cents an hour in Bangladesh, how can workers in the United States compete?
Some may argue that we are providing employment for Bangladeshis who need it, I find it hard to maintain the position that our purchases are helpfully perpetuating a system of utter exploitation that Pope Francis, quoted in the New York Times, yesterday, termed “slave labor.” Ultimately, the attitude, with long resonances in US history, that “the slaves are better off this way” can no longer be taken seriously.
So here is one more paradox in a society unable to change: we buy cheap foreign goods, thereby driving up industrial exploitation and accidents abroad (which of course we and our leaders all deplore), depriving ourselves of jobs, and enriching industrialists who buy up the politicians, here and abroad, who could have helped solve the problems.
Are we totally adjusted to such disasters as a cost of doing business and maintaining our supply of cheap T-shirts?
Or, eventually, will we pull ourselves together to assert one of our few remaining rights: to buy or not to buy?