The death toll has now risen to over 377 garment workers; many are still missing, thought to be trapped beneath the rubble. According to MSNBC, an estimated 3,000 garment workers were employed at the time of the buildings collapse. 3,000 labor force manufacturing garments for American retailers such as: J.C. Penny, Dress Barn, Joe Fresh, and mega retailers like Walmart.
According to the Associated Press, Walmart is currently investigating whether there was any “unauthorized production.” But, isn’t that the rub? When things go horribly wrong and the media shoots a lot of attention on places like Bangladesh and worker rights, mega retailers like Walmart can cry foul and say they purchase through a third party supplier with a set standard for the working conditions for whom they purchase goods; keeping their hands clean of the blood.
Charles Kernaghan, director of the Institute for Global Labour and Human Rights, made the following statement regarding worker rights in Bangladesh:
“It is long overdue that the United States, Canada, the European Union, Australia and other countries stop relying upon so-called ‘corporate codes of conduct’ that are never enforced. Workers must be guaranteed their legal right to organize independent unions, to bargain collectively and to have a contract that includes decent working conditions and a prohibition of child labor. Until workers are afforded their legal labor rights, nothing will change, and the list of tragedies will continue to grow.”
But we’re talking about an industry that accounts for 78% of said countries exports. Bangladesh is booming as a global hotspot for cheap garments, but with every boom also brings a higher risk for dangerous working conditions; especially when the local government in Bangladesh is lax in its regulation. 78% in exports is a big number, statistically; how much of an “eye” is the government really going to give those policies? Consider in our last report on Bangladesh regarding the November 2012 factory fire that killed 112 garment workers, garment workers who were manufacturing documented Walmart particular products, which happen just a few months ago; what changed?
In an update for our last Bangladesh report, the building owner, Mohammed Sohel Rana, “was arrested while attempting to cross the border to India,” according to MSNBC. The High Court in Bangladesh is charging Mohammed Sohel Rana with violating a construction permit which allowed him to build a five-story building; while actually constructing an eight-story building. However, according to The Guardian news report, the mayor of Bangladesh approved the project, even though it violated the permit.
But this isn’t the first international garment factory disaster, and it won’t be the last, not so long as we the responsible consumer are screaming for lower costs for clothing. As consumers, we need to understand that places like Walmart are not charities; they will, some way, make a profit. Back in November of 2012, some of us watched the news and got a little pissy that Walmart employees here in the states were striking, and maybe some of us felt a bit encouraged in their actions to stand up to a mega retailer. But if we think Walmart employees here in America have it bad living on something resembling minimum wage, consider what kind of conditions garment workers are living with in countries that do not have regulated working conditions, consider that during that same month a garment factory manufacturing robes and women nightgowns for Wal-Mart’s Black Friday sales, burnt to the ground, killing 112 working class employees. Let something like that happen in the U.S. and I guarantee something will come out of it. But, as long as it happens overseas, and we don’t have to look at it, no fuss, no muss.
There is a least one retailer who is taking some measure of responsibility. Primark, according to Sky News, has said that they “will pay compensation to the victims of the Bangladesh textile factory disaster who worked for its supplier.” Notice how Primark claimed that they purchased goods through a third party supplier, but are still taking responsibility? This responsibility also includes long-term aid for children who have lost parents, financial aid for those injured and payments to the families of the deceased. While Primark is a jolly O’ England based company, American based companies, like Walmart, have refused compensation.
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?