Sweatshop Fire in Bangladesh: Tragedy Repeats Itself

Noah Brand questions whether the recent tragedy in Bangladesh will have any influence on international workplace safety reform

In 1911, a hundred and forty-six workers, mostly young immigrant women, died horribly because their work conditions were criminally, unjustifiably dangerous. When fire broke out in their dim, overcrowded workrooms, they found all the exits locked, trapping them inside with the smoke and the flames. Those who didn’t succumb to the blaze jumped out the windows in a vain hope of escape. The owners of the company weren’t even fined, though two years later a civil suit forced them to pay out a whopping $75 per human life.

The tragedy awoke much of America to the desperate need for labor reform. Gilded Age laissez-faire policies had trusted that businesses would look after their workers in their own prudent interests. The fire ended that lie, temporarily. It helped lay bare similar abuses coast to coast, helped make clear to the average newspaper reader that working people needed to protect themselves from abuses by their corporate masters. Over the following decades, unions and voters brought in sweeping reforms, improving safety, working conditions, pay, benefits, and more.

Then laissez-faire got fashionable again, this time with a global-economy spin. Outsourcing does more than move jobs to where labor’s cheapest; it helps put layers of legal deniability between corporate policy and corpse piles.

Now, with another hundred-plus garment workers dead in another deadly sweatshop fire, the corporate giants responsible are shocked—shocked!—to find that their cut-costs-at-any-price policy has, you know, any price:

If this were an isolated incident of Wal-Mart denying responsibility for the conditions under which the people who make and move its products labor, then the Bangladeshi disaster wouldn’t reflect quite so badly on the company. But the very essence of the Wal-Mart system is to employ thousands upon thousands of workers through contractors and subcontractors and sub-subcontractors, who are compelled by Wal-Mart’s market power and its demand for low prices to cut corners and skimp on safety. And because Wal-Mart isn’t the employer of record for these workers, the company can disavow responsibility for their conditions of work.

So that’s what a hundred years has gotten us. We’re back to burning people in sweatshops, but now it’s brown people far away, and it’s a subcontractor of a subcontractor of a subcontractor, so the people in power can cluck their tongues and wonder how it’s possible that this kind of thing keeps happening.

It remains to be seen whether this unspeakable tragedy will have a legacy of hope and reform, like the hard-fought battles sparked by the Triangle Shirtwaist fire. Somehow, though, I’m not optimistic.

Photo—Public Domain

 

 

 

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About Noah Brand

Noah Brand is an Editor-at-Large at Good Men Project, and possibly also a cartoon character from the 1930s. His life, when it is written, will read better than it lived. He is usually found in Portland, Oregon, directly underneath a very nice hat.

Comments

  1. Richard Aubrey says:

    It’s not WalMart’s fault. It’s the fault of consumers who don’t want to pay more than they can afford for necessities.
    You need to be shaming the poor in the US. If they could or would pay more, WalMart would have a different business model.

    • You need to be shaming the poor in the US. If they could or would pay more, WalMart would have a different business model.

      So, Richard Aubrey, we should be “shaming” the poor for not doing what, by your own admission, you concede they may be unable to do.

      Hmmm … let’s, see according to Forbes, here is the net wealth of some relevant individuals:

      Rob Walton $26.1 billion
      Alice Walton $26.3 billion
      Jim Walton $26.8 billion
      Christy Walton “& family” $27.9 billion

      So EACH of these WalMart owners/heirs have more wealth than the bottom 12.3% of Americans (representing about 35 million people) COMBINED. (Source: A report from 2003 from the Federal Reserve Board, “A Rolling Tide: Changes In The Distribution Of Wealth In The U.S., 1989-2001″)

      But it’s the poor who are at fault here. Sure.

      Noah: Good post.

      • So what shall we do with all those wealthy people? Do I hear The Internationale playing in the background BALLGAME?

        Pitchforks on sale in aisle 7. OMG! We are so doomed a people.

        • So what shall we do with all those wealthy people?

          Well, Rob, for step one we should do what more than half the Republican survey respondents were in favor of a year ago (and what the overwhelming majority of Americans are in favor of now): TAX. THEM.

          Let’s pass the Eisenhower Tax Restoration Act … under his administration, the wealthiest earners paid 90% taxes on their incomes, 50% on corporate profits, and 25% on capital gains. (Are you going to accuse the Republican Eisenhower of humming the Internationale too?) Today, income and corporate taxes are in the 35% range, while capital gains are at the 15% range.

          The additional revenue would allow us to easily expand Medicare into a universal health care program and finally allow the U.S. to enter the 20th century with universal coverage … which would be a MAJOR improvement in the lives of the marginalized people who work and shop at places like WalMart.

          Step two would be to have a sane approach to tariffs that does not throw open the doors to countries that have abusive or hyper-exploitative labor policies.

          • Actually, in busniess models and theory, the “all else remaining equal” is in place. ANY retailer cam do what Wally does now. WallWorld just brought a big-ass bastart to the competition and is winning. Their employees are so inept however, Walmart is losing my business more and more. Factors factors factors! they all got ‘em. We all face them. Walmart WILL see decline when they get fat.

            As for taxing the Waltons…you ever see the inheritance ALL wealthy heirs pay. They may have high net worth, but that was taxed to death. If you want to just take away net-worth, then you’ll see them leave the USA.

            But I think you are talking about taxing their income. I think I should pay the same bloody percentage they do. I look at it that way.

            You ever have a poor person give you a job? Me neither. You ever get start-up capital from a poor guy that has no vissions of change? Me neither. You ever ask a poor guy for $200K for a non-profit Child Services effort? You would not even think of approaching the poor dude.

            47% of this nation needs to get their head out of the dark rectum of hate, resentment, jealousy and proletariat mentality, else they will have no hope of leaving the 47% reality of strife.

    • OMG! They don’t even get sarcasm. The movie Idiocracy remains true.

  2. “So that’s what a hundred years has gotten us. We’re back to burning people in sweatshops, but now it’s brown people far away, and it’s a subcontractor of a subcontractor of a subcontractor, so the people in power can cluck their tongues and wonder how it’s possible that this kind of thing keeps happening.”

    OMG!!!! We? Us? When did WE annex Bangladesh? The last time I checked,WE had not. The last time i looked, Bangladesh was and is a sovereign state.
    Liberals hate our idealistic impositions on other nations, except for on some things? This fire was not MY fault, YOUR fault, Obama’s fault (sorry to say), or Perry Ellis’ fault. OSHA don’t dance there either!!!

    Bangladesh is a big girl now. She can draft and adopt safety codes if she values lives. OSHA regs are available online. Do you really think its the contractor’s fault?

    The last time I checked, Mrs Clinton was our head of State. She has had ample time to right wrongs we don’t own.

    If you don’t like the “Hecho en Bangladesh” or India or Zimbabwe, move on to Ralph Lauren. He has much nicer colours for the New World Order anyway. But stop slapping the blame sticker on the USA. Its getting boring as heck.

  3. Richard Aubrey says:

    Noah. Here’s a suggestion: Find a family which needs to shop at WalMart. Offer to pay them the difference between what WalMart charges for food, clothing, school necessities, pharma drugs, and so forth and the price at an upscale store if they’ll shop at the latter.
    You do a good deed and WalMart loses a customer.
    Win-win.

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