Monday, December 03, 2012

The hidden cost of cheap goods

The following piece first appeared in the Deming Headlight today.


While Americans shopped on the Saturday after Thanksgiving, a factory burning far away shed a distant light on the human cost of cheaper goods and higher profits.

The fire consumed the Tazreen Fashions factory and with it the lives of 120 workers. Most of the dead were trapped in the building due to its lack of fire exits. There were three staircases, all of which led to the ground floor, which was engulfed in flames. A dozen people jumped from the building rather than submit to being burnt to death.

The factory was located outside Dhaka, Bangladesh. The country annually exports about $20 billion in garment goods. The Tazreen factory produced goods for Walmart, J.C. Penney, and other familiar suppliers such as Tesco and Carrefour.

In many ways, the incident was a repeat of a sad event in our own history: The Triangle Fire of 1911 in New York City. It was a turning point in American workplace safety although it was not the only or even the worst case of Americans dying at work. The Triangle Waist company occupied three floors of the Asch Building in Greenwich Village. About 500 workers worked there manufacturing blouses. The majority of these workers were women and girls as young as 15, mostly immigrants, who worked nine hours a day all week and also worked for seven hours on Saturdays.

Employees were restricted to a single exit where they were individually searched for stolen merchandise; other exits were locked. What could possibly go wrong?

The fire started in a waste basket and destroyed the factory in just half an hour. Fleeing workers discovered locked fire exits, and fire escapes that led nowhere or bent under their weight. As in Dhaka, some employees were forced to jump from the building and died on the pavement. The fire department arrived quickly, but their ladders did not extend high enough nor did they have enough water pressure to rescue people or fight the fire. The death toll reached 146.

New York's response to this horror was remarkable. Citizens, 100,000-strong, marched up Fifth Avenue in a grim vigil witnessed by 400,000 onlookers. For a moment, they were not consumers, but citizens outraged by the treatment of those who labor and produce our goods. An engaged citizenry then demanded improved fire safety, requiring industry spend some of its profit on safer conditions for their employees.

While there has been progress on behalf of workers, corporations have pushed back. We still have work-related diseases and deaths on the job. Regulations are being rolled back or simply not enforced. In recent decades, manufacturers have exported more and more of their labor to distant countries where wages are much cheaper and American standards for working conditions do not apply. Outsourcing has allowed industry to cut its labor and safety costs while Americans suffer unemployment; and subcontracting has allowed some of our most beloved retailers to deny accountability when workers die or become sick under conditions that would not be tolerated in the United States.

Even in these regressive political times, another Triangle fire would not be tolerated in the United States. Bangladesh, on the other hand, is far away. When a workplace massacre takes place in the third world, American consumers do not feel that this happened to them, the way New Yorkers felt about the Triangle fire. While the factory burned, Americans innocently shopped. We don't know these people, even though we may have tried on clothing they made.

For the most part, we act as consumers and do not think about the conditions under which our goods - our sweaters and kids' toys and electronic devices - are produced, or by whom. Yet we are capable of seeing this human relationship. Human history repeats itself as thousands of garment workers fill the streets of Dhaka to protest their treatment.

It is still within our power to address our private sector, including our favorite retailers. This is not about blame, but taking responsibility for a human problem. Like the New Yorkers who marched on Albany on 1911, let us address an economic system that boosts profits at the expense of American employment and worker safety.

1 comment:

Kelly said...

The Triangle Waist Company fire was the first thing I thought of when I heard about this tragedy.