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.