In a global economy, much can be said regarding the void between retailer responsibility and manufacture responsibility. Are retailers, such as: Walmart, The Gap, Disney, and so on, responsible for worker conditions from the factories they purchase goods from? Should we, as consumers of these foreign goods, expect the industries in which we shop, to have some form of standard of worker treatment and safety conditions? And, in the end, do these mega U.S. retailers deserve the blame when things go horribly wrong and folks around the world who sew our jeans and shirts become endangered?
Consider our own history of dangerous working conditions and what it took to motivate local action in getting fair legislation approved to increase safety standards.
The Triangle Fire:
Six days a week, over one-hundred thousand people poured out into the streets on the lower east side, heading to another days work in New York’s garment district. Most were young women, some as young as ten; immigrant families from Poland fleeing persecution or famine. These families sought America because of a promise of a better future; however, it was a precarious dream based on a foundational willingness to work. In the heart of the garment district was Triangle Waist Company, in Greenwich Village, known today as the Brown Building; a National Historic Landmark. A little over 500 immigrants worked at Triangle, out of them, 146 would die in a fire that would be, at the time, the largest industrial disaster in the city of New York, on March 25, 1911.
Owners Max Blanck and Isaac Harris were themselves immigrants, building a business from the floor up. Blanck and Harris believed fervently in max production at the lowest cost possible in the product of fashionable women’s shirtwaists. But a change in desirable fashion meant a season of challenge for the owners to keep profits up against the other 500 garment factories in Manhattan. Blanck wrote in his dairy that he had trouble sleeping, fearing the loss of money from workers walking out with shirtwaists and material. He had foremen lock the doors to the stairwells and exits. When the fire broke out, a majority of the workers on the eighth, ninth, and tenth floors were trapped. Only one small box elevator could commute the panicked women to safety. Some girls jumped from the modern big windows to escape the blaze, only to be greeted by the pavement below and a crowd of shocked onlookers. Some jumped into the elevator shaft, unable to wait for the slow return of the box elevator. Those still inside tried to escape through the doors and exits to the stairwell, but no one had a key. The fire departments ladder could only reach up to the sixth floor, thirty feet shy of the burning. Sarah Cooper, a sixteen year old machine operator, was the last to die in the Triangle Fire. She was one of those who jumped, but survived the impact. Sarah never regained consciousness and after four days, succumbed to her wounds.
In the weeks that followed the Triangle Fire, the American public became outraged in the continuation of low safety standards for workers and demanded legislation to improve factory conditions. (For more information on the 1911 Triangle Fire, visit: http://www.ilr.cornell.edu/trianglefire/)
On April 24, 2013, a garment building, employing about 3,122 workers, collapsed near the Bangladesh capitol of Dhaka, and according to CNN, the death toll is steadily raising, currently at 285. It is not clear how many of the employed were inside when the building collapsed, but rescuers are searching among the ruined structure for those feared to be trapped inside. According to surviving garment workers, they had reported cracks appearing in the structure a day earlier, but were told by the owner that “[there was] no need to worry about the safety.” Another garment worker said they were told “if they didn’t go back to work, they might lose their wages.” The building also houses a bank and a shopping mall. CNN reports:
- “Unlike the garment factory workers, the bank employees had been told not to report for work on Wednesday because of the concerns about the structure. And the shops in the mall were closed because of a strike.”
Just five months earlier, in November 2012, another Bangladesh garment disaster occurred at the Tazreen factory, where a fire broke out; killing 112 garment workers. According to Democracy Now, Walmart, the largest buyer from Bangladesh garment factories, refused to compensate victims and their families. In the wake of these disasters, we are left a nagging question: should Walmart be responsible? According to Parul Begum, a surviving garment worker, the emergency doors were locked. The only escape was by breaking one of the windows and jumping out. Begum reports:
- “…we all rushed and were trying to get out of the factory. The factory worker broke a window, and one of the workers pulled me through the window. Immediately after the fire broke, we tried to run out, but the door was locked. When the floor became dark because of smoke, the boys rescued me.”
According to the New York Times, Walmart issued a statement addressing that they had stopped authorizing production at Tazreen and other unsafe garment factories in Bangladesh. However, documents have been discovered on the Tazreen site confirming that they had a contract to produce 117,000 robes and nightgowns for both Walmart and Sears for the upcoming winter season. All documents, according to New York Times, “were found in the building offices that were largely undamaged by the fire.” Judy Gearhart, the executive director of the International Labor Rights Forum, a Washington-based nonprofit group, made the following statement:
- “I don’t understand why Walmart is spending so much time focusing on trying to claim that they didn’t know that work for Walmart was being done in this factory when Walmart should be focusing on trying to insure decent compensation for the families and to prevent future fires in its supply chain.”
The Bangladesh government has made a call for responsibility in the wake of the resent catastrophes. According to Boishakhi Television, “the nation’s high court has ordered for the building owners to appear in court on April 30, 2013.” Laborers across Bangladesh are laying siege on offices belonging to the Garments Manufactures and Exporters Association in the Karwan Bazar in Dhaka, demanding for the “immediate arrest of the factory owners.” Patrick Ventrell, a spokesman for the U.S. States Department made the following statement:
- “[The disaster underscores] the urgent need for the government, owners, buyers, and labor to find ways of improving working conditions in Bangladesh.”
In light of recent events, as consumers, we are left with a very problematic question: Who is responsible? Without a doubt, blame for the lax in building safety could be laid at the feet of the owners. The Bangladesh government is also not without fault. As one reporter commented, that the problem with the buildings not complying with prescribed safety standards should also fall unto the Bangladesh government. Isn’t that the point of government? To ensure regulations are being followed? To a degree, perhaps…but could it not also be said that retailers who are doing business with these shoddy garment factories also be held responsible? This question is the very precariousness of the entire situation because to an extent, we consumers are also responsible. We want low prices without asking questions. Companies, like Walmart, provide those low prices at the cost of cheap labor and questionable foreign work environments. So, what’s the bottom-line? How can we promote global equality of life in a system set up for corruption? At what cost are we willing to pay for fashionable waist-shirts?