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July 4, 2016



What does it take to get the world’s attention? Attacks on Brussels, Paris and the World Trade Center seem to concentrate our attention as citizens of the West, but what about tragedies that occur regularly in Third World countries, especially those where we are consumers of goods made or assembled there? Do we in the West really care about the working conditions and wages of those who make our shirts, our coats, our underwear, or are their injuries and deaths in providing us with such necessities merely collateral damage in capitalism’s eternal search for cheap labor around the globe? Who cares, and why should they? Capitalism and morality seem to be oil and water, never to mix, with profit (however myopically gained) capitalism’s sole objective.

I was led to the above and other considerations of what we are told is a one-world economy amidst exhortations in how we must compete with every nation on earth for business, but I like to think that that there is a modicum of morality in the conduct of such business beyond crass profit, that those who profit and those who do not bear some responsibility for the welfare of their fellow humans who, as in this essay, put garments together in a faraway place.

Are we consumers of garments from crowded and incredibly impoverished Southeast Asia in a position to demand that workers in such sweatshops work under safe conditions and are paid decent wages, or have we abdicated such considerations to American multinational corporations whose only reason to exist is to make profits for further distribution to “shareholder value”? After all, it is not multinational corporations who are in charge of aggregate demand; we consumers call those shots, and if we stop buying goods made from, for instance, Bangladesh or India for whatever reason, those producing markets will crash along with the profits of sponsoring American multinational corporations.

So is protectionism a vice or a virtue? Should tariffs be imposed on the importation of goods made or assembled in unsafe sweatshop conditions and a slave wage regimen, and if not, why not? Who are we with our consumer habits to impose unsafe working sweatshop working conditions and poverty wages on already mistreated and impoverished work forces somewhere else so that Walmart and J. C. Penney can sell underwear at a profit?

So what does it take to get the world’s attention? Let’s take Bangladesh, a country that has had serial tragedies beginning with its own beginning in its partition from Pakistan. Aside from earthquakes, floods, over population and the like, let’s take a look at industrial tragedies. I am indebted for research done by Robert J.S. Ross in his article in the Summer Edition of The American Prospect, entitled “Bringing Labor Rights to Bangladesh.” The tragedies I am about to set forth were preventable, but (with one exception) were hardly mentioned in Western media.

The Spectrum building collapse killed 62 in 2005, 62 garment workers who make our underwear under (obviously) unsafe conditions. Result? It did not get the world’s attention, though some unions did meet in 2010 (5 years later!) to make recommendations in re worker safety.

The February 2010 Garib & Garib Sweater fire that killed 21 brought about a meeting of local and global unions who came up with a set of safety proposals, which were released in April of the same year and which called for, inter alia, proposed binding agreements for independent inspections, public access to the reports, and worker involvement in factory safety and governance of the arrangements. Nothing happened.

The Tarzeen factory fire killed 112 in November 2012, the greatest loss of life in the Bangladesh garment industry until then. More meetings were held but nothing of substance happened, and one is led to believe that few care about Bangladeshi garment workers who left their paddies and came to town looking for a better life, only to die in fires (failure of government to enforce electrical codes) and building collapses (failure of government to enforce building codes). What does it take to get the world’s attention? It took Rana Plaza.

The Rana Plaza building collapse on April 24, 2013, killed at least 1,130 and left another 2,500 workers injured, many crippled for life and deeply traumatized. The survivors’ horrific stories of on-site amputations and workers’ being trapped underground for days added a heart-rending human dimension to the situation. Implicated in these deaths and injuries were 31 Western fashion brands, buyers of products from the local family owners renting space in the Rana Plaza, including J.C. Penney, Bonmarche and of course, Walmart, all of whom had voluntary codes of conduct pledging that they and their suppliers would provide safe and healthy working conditions (which were toothless and worthless and designed to afford a layer of non-liability to the importers’ interests).

Garment workers in Bangladesh were the worst-paid garment workers in the world, but after Rana Plaza (which finally drew the world’s attention in the headlines and the outrage of both workers and indignant Western governments) their wages were increased from $38 to $68 (which is still far from a living wage). In the wake of Rana Plaza, union representatives met with world-wide representatives of fashion brands to put together agreements which called for a policing of safety conditions and allowing unionists to serve on their board. As expected, Walmart (with its history of virulent anti-unionism) and other American companies such as The Gap withdrew from such negotiations and negotiated their own agreements with garment producers which, unsurprisingly, continued to call for voluntary enforcement but with no enforceable commitments, which mirrored decades of mostly useless codes of conduct.

Even so, Rana Plaza has provided us with glimmer of hope, a hope that importers of fashion brands and other such garments will accept more responsibility for the working conditions and wages (and perhaps union representation) of those who make or assemble garments for export to the rest of the world.

It is more than regrettable that it took a Rana Plaza to attract the world’s attention to the working conditions and wages of garment workers in Bangladesh. Let’s not let our outrage die, any more than our outrage for the World Trade Center’s destruction. Today is the Fourth of July, an appropriate date to celebrate our freedom from tyranny. Let’s apply that release to the workers in Third World countries who (however indirectly) labor for us and our ease.    GERALD      E













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One Comment
  1. billy1926 permalink

    I like your tone, I like your texts, I like your tenderness. However, your “glimmer of hope” is borne on the essence that WHITE AMERICANS, who import the products, will continue to provide some relief and improvement. It’s balanced on very tender assumptions and gauged by very hardened WHITE GUYS. Billy

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