By The Progressive on April 11, 2005
Bangladeshi factory collapse highlights need to reform global economy
by Amitabh Pal

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.

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By Wendell Berry

Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front

Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more 
of everything ready made. Be afraid 
to know your neighbors and to die.
And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery 
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card 
and shut away in a little drawer.
When they want you to buy something 
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know. 
So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute. Love the Lord. 
Love the world. Work for nothing. 
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it. 
Denounce the government and embrace 
the flag. Hope to live in that free 
republic for which it stands. 
Give your approval to all you cannot
understand. Praise ignorance, for what man 
has not encountered he has not destroyed.
Ask the questions that have no answers. 
Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.


Say that the leaves are harvested 
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.
Put your faith in the two inches of humus 
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.
Listen to carrion—put your ear
close, and hear the faint chattering
of the songs that are to come. 
Expect the end of the world. Laugh. 
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts. 
So long as women do not go cheap 
for power, please women more than men.
Ask yourself: Will this satisfy 
a woman satisfied to bear a child?
Will this disturb the sleep 
of a woman near to giving birth? 
Go with your love to the fields.
Lie easy in the shade. Rest your head 
in her lap. Swear allegiance 
to what is nighest your thoughts.
As soon as the generals and the politicos 
can predict the motions of your mind, 
lose it. Leave it as a sign 
to mark the false trail, the way 
you didn’t go. Be like the fox 
who makes more tracks than necessary, 
some in the wrong direction.
Practice resurrection.

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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