By Amitabh Pal on November 26, 2012

The horrific garment factory fire in Bangladesh that has killed more than 100 workers tells us a lot about the way globalization works.

The factory was making clothes for household names such as Walmart and, possibly, Target, as well as for European retailers. The working conditions would strain the imagination of Charles Dickens.

Relatives of the victims "said most of the deaths could have been avoided had the supervisors allowed the workers to escape just after the fire alarm went off at 6:45 p.m.," reports the Daily Star, a leading Bangladeshi English-language daily. "The supervisors not only prevented the workers from leaving their stations but also locked the gates on different floors, said many survivors."

Western chains disclaim responsibility for such tragedies. They frequently have arrangements with the factories through intermediary suppliers. And even if they deal with the manufacturers directly, most often they give the owners a rap on the knuckles for repeated infractions (with Walmart severing ties with the Bangladeshi factory only after the fire).

But by turning a blind eye to the plight of workers and by insisting that factories do everything to contain costs, Western retail giants encourage the lowest wages, safety standards and working conditions. A cousin of mine who runs an Indian furniture factory that supplies to American retailers once mentioned to me that a U.S.-based discount chain offered her such low rates for dining sets that she had to further outsource the work, since she couldn't afford to pay her regular factory workers.

"These international, Western brands have a lot of responsibility for these fire issues," labor leader Kalpona Akter told the New York Times. "In this factory, there was a pile of fabrics and yarn stored on the ground floor that caught fire. Workers couldn't evacuate through the stairs. What does this say about compliance?"

Some years ago, two Bangladeshi garment workers and a union organizer from that country visited The Progressive offices here in Madison, Wisconsin, along with labor activist Charles Kernaghan. The workers, whose factories supplied a number of American companies, told of regularly working from 8 in the morning till 10 or 11 at night seven days a week. They also described physical abuse, such as being hit in the leg for standing up from their stools and slapped for talking on the job.

The fire in Bangladesh is far from an anomaly. More than 500 garment workers have died there in the past six years. Other countries in South Asia have suffered similar calamities in the recent past. In September, a factory fire in Pakistan claimed an astonishing toll of almost 300 workers. It was the same tale of a complete neglect of labor rights.

"Workers were said to be unable to escape because the doors were locked," The Guardian reported. "Allegedly, there was no emergency exit, with other doors blocked by piles of finished clothes, workers had to smash iron bars on the windows to jump several storeys to escape the flames, and unsafe chemicals in the rickety building made the smoke even more toxic."

Here, too, the factory was making clothes for Western retailers, in this case jeans for the German discount chain Kik. What we have here is the global race to the bottom in action.

Pakistani "garment manufacturers claim that in order to compete with cheap products from Vietnam and India, they are forced to cut corners," The Guardian said. "Putting profits over worker safety is a universal problem, and can be seen in sweatshops throughout the developing world, including in neighboring India and Bangladesh."

Bangladesh is the second-largest exporter of garments in the world, with an estimated 3 million working in the industry. In Pakistan, the textile sector gives jobs to almost two-fifths of the manufacturing workforce.

All the more reason that the global supply chain needs to be drastically overhauled. We need to be sure that the clothes we purchase are not manufactured at the cost of people's lives.

If you liked this article by Amitabh Pal, the managing editor of the Progressive magazine, please check out his article entitled "Obama's Burma Visit a Huge Gamble."

Follow Amitabh Pal @amitpal on Twitter.

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Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
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Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
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Wendell Berry is a poet, farmer, and environmentalist in Kentucky. This poem, first published in 1973, is reprinted by permission of the author and appears in his “New Collected Poems” (Counterpoint).

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