The recent horrific collapse of a garment-factory building in Bangladesh should cause people throughout the world to pause and ask some serious questions – questions that should make us all squirm.
That collapse caused the deaths of at least 800 people, with more bodies yet to be recovered.
For too long, some international companies have operated under a dirty little secret. And that dirty little secret is cheap labor, cheap goods, fat profits. One reason for the scarcity of American jobs is the long-time practice of companies either out-sourcing jobs to other countries or manufacturing goods here by using imported materials from sweat-shop factories elsewhere. Some of these companies were born and bred in America – venerable economic titans, loyal to the American workers who made them so successful. Loyal, that is, until the phenomenon of the “global economy” came into being after which, too often, many of the biggest American companies sought cheap labor overseas. They became so “international” in nature their sense of loyalty to their American workers evaporated.
It’s not just American companies, either. Those from other countries play the same game, reaching tentacles out for cheaper labor. Of course, unrestrained free-market advocates justify such practices as “smart business.” Others call it for what it is: exploitation.
The trouble is, much of that cheap labor (human beings) is housed in shoddily constructed, terribly unsafe buildings with no standards whatsoever, often on sites of deadly pollution. Some are cruel sweat shops where workers are virtual slaves. Some vicious owners even lock their workers inside. There have been deadly fires and other disasters, especially in garment factories, like the ones in Bangladesh. Incidentally, one of the worst factory disasters in history occurred in New York City in 1911, when 146 workers, almost all of them women, died in a fire because of no safety factors and a locked exit door. Last year, a fire in another Bangladesh garment factory killed 112 workers.
Eighty percent of Bangladesh’s exports are garments. In the factory building that collapsed, workers made garments for major companies in Britain, Canada and the United States. The owner of the building and its engineer have been arrested because not only was the structure purposely built without proper permits, but the owner told workers to go into the building right after the police and others recommended evacuation shortly before the collapse.
Workers in that building made the equivalent of $38 a month in U.S. money. Last year, it was half that until the workers went on strike.
What’s needed badly are international standards for worker safety. Companies who rely upon foreign human labor to sell cheap goods should demand safety standards and decent living wages for those workers. Otherwise, their dealings with those unscrupulous scoundrels should cease.
In despicable, avoidable tragedies like this, we are all a little bit guilty. That thought should cross our minds every time we buy “cheap bargain” clothing and other goods.