Editor's note: This contribution by the late journalist I.F. Stone first appeared in our January 1975 magazine.
April 12, 2005
The collapse on April 11 of a Bangladesh garment factory that has killed at least 30 workers emphasizes once again the need to reform the global economy (abcnews.go.com/International/wireStory?id=662767).
The nine-story structure collapsed after a boiler exploded. Hundreds of workers remain trapped beneath the rubble, with the chances of survival for most of them appearing slim.
This is a snapshot of the toll of corporate globalization.
The complete suspension of basic rules for a factory that exported clothing mainly to the United States, Belgium and Germany is breathtaking. Not only was the factory allegedly in violation of even minimal safety standards, but apparently it was built absolutely illegally on swampland, a fact that local authorities seem to have woken up to only after the ghastly tragedy (news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/south_asia/4437513.stm).
Which American companies were purchasing clothing from this factory from hell?
"No one knows," says Charles Kernaghan, executive director of the National Labor Committee for Worker and Human Rights (www.nlcnet.org/news). Kernaghan points out that one of the ironies of the globalized economy is that workers can rarely read the labels of the companies they are sweating for, making it impossible to get such information from them. The owners (in this case, reportedly the son-in-law of a ruling party member of parliament) most often abscond after such disasters. And, sure as hell, the Western companies enjoying low-priced goods courtesy of the factory's disdain for the lives of its workers aren't going to issue press releases advertising their connection to such a factory.
The subcontractors frequently engage in misleading advertising, claiming modern factories and wonderful working conditions on their websites. This permits Western corporations to feign ignorance about the actual working conditions.
Often, however, Western retail chains are responsible for such bad conditions by their insistence on holding costs down. A cousin of mine who runs an Indian furniture factory that supplies to American retailers recently 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! When giant chains in the U.S. demand goods produced at ridiculously low prices, they invite-and effectively insist on-the exploitation of workers and the neglect of basic safety.
Last October, Kernaghan visited The Progressive's office in Madison, Wisconsin, bringing two Bangladeshi garment workers and a union organizer from that country. The workers described horrendous conditions. They told of regularly working from 8 in the morning till 10 or 11 at night seven days a week, without any holidays. They also recounted physical and verbal abuse, such as being hit in the leg for standing up from their stools and slapped for talking on the job. Their factories supplied a number of American companies, the biggest being Wal-Mart.
Not a single garment factory in Bangladesh is unionized, Kernaghan says. And the pressures of globalization is driving an even more intense "road to the bottom." The fear in the global textile industry is that of domination by China after the ending of textile quotas on January 1 under World Trade Organization rules. As a response, the Bangladeshi government passed a law in September that mandated a 72-hour workweek at 20 cents an hour.
I'm a realist about the way things operate in developing countries. I also recognize the desperate demand for jobs in countries like Bangladesh. (Nearly 2 million Bangladeshi workers toil in the garment sector, and it is one of the leading garment suppliers to the U.S.) But the existing situation is intolerable.
What needs to be done to remedy this?
Western companies that profit off such horrendous working conditions need to be publicly shamed, although there are practical obstacles to this. Kernaghan says that researchers on behalf of his organization still haven't been able to find out the labels that bought from a Bangladeshi factory that was destroyed by a fire in January, killing at least 22 people. (http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/south_asia/4154595.stm)
Congress and state and local governments, as well as universities, need to insist on labeling all along the supply chain to ensure basic safety and living wages.
And as consumers, we need to tell major corporations that we support better wages and working conditions for people who make our clothes and other household items. Kernaghan's organization has calculated that if each worker were paid 25 cents more per garment, this paltry sum would be enough to lift Bangladeshi workers out of poverty.
Put another way, an average American buys 56 garments each year. At 25 cents more per person, that'd be a mere $14 more per year that the average person would have to spend. Surely that's not too much to ensure that other workers do not suffer the same horrible fate that befell so many on April 11.