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By Amitabh Pal
Even after the horrific Bangladesh garment factory collapse, all that American retail giants like Walmart, Gap and Target can think of is their bottom line.
In the wake of the April tragedy that killed more than 1,100 Bangladeshi workers —the worst industrial disaster since Bhopal—there was enormous pressure on the chains that bought from such factories to make sure that catastrophes like this don’t happen again. European retailers signed an agreement early this week that binds them to making improvements to Bangladeshi supplier factories. The response of American outlets? A legally toothless agreement that doesn’t mean squat.
“They can use all the rhetoric they choose, but if you look at the substance, there’s very little there,” Scott Nova, executive director of the Worker Rights Consortium, told the New York Times. “They can walk away whenever they want and there is no real obligation to pay a penny to repair and renovate factories.”
Indeed, according to the Inter Press Service, American companies were unwilling to sign on to any agreement at all until they were advised that if they didn’t do this, the “Made in Bangladesh” tag might become toxic for many consumers. In fact, as The Nation reports, the think tank that brokered the agreement, an outfit called the Bipartisan Policy Center, has received funding from Walmart as well as a lobbying firm representing the company. So, the end result is no surprise. The sad truth is that unless firms take measures to reform the global supply chain, there’s little hope for revamping a system where cheap clothes have much more value than human lives. Contrary to what you would expect in the aftermath of such a globally reported event, Bangladeshi exports in June rose 16.3 percent due to robust garment purchases, mainly in Europe and the United States. And even the Obama Administration’s recent step to withdraw trade privileges for Bangladesh will not have much of an effect, according to trade analysts. So, in the end the onus lies on retail behemoths like Walmart. But to expect moral concern from such companies is expecting too much. “I’ve done the math on what Alice Walton paid for a certain painting and how many thousands of years it would take one of her employees to earn the money to buy that painting,” says writer Rebecca Solnit in the next issue of The Progressive. “Yet the Walton family and other rich people like them are squeezing their employees even more. They’re taking away a little more, making their employees a little more desperate, helping their children die of treatable diseases, helping them have that incredible misery of poverty, which is both insecurity as well as basic lack.” Solnit is not the only one critiquing the retail industry. Pope Francis issued a thundering denunciation of working conditions at the Bangladeshi factory complex, calling the workers “slave labor.” “Not paying a just [wage], not providing work, focusing exclusively on the balance books, on financial statements, only looking at making personal profit,” the Pope declaimed. “That goes against God!” Unfortunately, it will take more than even the Pope and God combined to get Walmart and its ilk to focus on something other than money. Amitabh Pal, the managing editor of The Progressive and co-editor of the Progressive Media Project, is the author of “ ‘Islam’ Means Peace: Understanding the Muslim Principle of Nonviolence Today” (Praeger).